On & Off Broadway

Two New Musicals: ‘Anastasia’ and ‘Bandstand’

Reviews by Elyse Trevers

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Anastasia, a new musical, with music by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, is based on the 1956 movie starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. The story tells of a young girl with amnesia who might be the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas, whose assassination sparked the 1917 Russian revolution. His entire family was killed, but urban legend suggests that the youngest daughter, Anastasia, might have escaped.

The show opens with grandmother (Mary Beth Peil) bidding her granddaughter Anastasi farewell as she leaves Russia. Then there’s a quick stylized assassination scene. Fast forward 10 years where two con-artists, Vlad (John Bolton) and Dimitri (Derek Elena) look for a girl to pass off as Anastasia and teach her so that she can convince the Dowager Empress, now living in Paris, that she is her grandchild. The two men hope to claim the large reward.

They find Anya (Christy Altomare), working as a street cleaner who inexplicably knows things about the royal court. Eventually everyone comes to believe she really is royalty.

Linda Cho’s costume designs, particularly in the Czar era, are stunning. However, most of the music is forgettable and, like so many musicals, the show goes on too long. The Russian revolution was a dark time in history, and yet Anastasia is always bright and sparkly. Even the peasants waiting on food lines and the drunks on the street are too clean.

Despite her beautiful singing voice, Altomare has little charisma and, like Disney princesses, is interchangeable. The highlights of the production are the regal bearing and presence of Peil as the Dowager Mother and the comic relief provided by Bolton and Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor.)

Anastasia is pretty to look at, bright and cheery even when invoking the ghosts of Anastasia’s dead family who appear several times. At times it seems reminiscent of My Fair Lady with touches of Les Miz and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but unlike those shows, Anastasia isn’t unique and memorable.

A few days later, another new musical opened. Bandstand begins with a promising premise: soldiers who return home from war physically intact but emotionally damaged. The world greets them as heroes, only to expect them to adjust to a world that has passed them by.

When piano player Donnie (Corey Cott) returns, he’s unable to find a job. Despondent, he feels hopeful when he learns of a national contest to pick a new band and an original song for a movie. First Donnie must put together the band and comes up with an angle – all veterans. However, each man in the group has his personal ‘baggage’: one drinks to help forget the horrors of liberating Dachau, another creates rigid schedules to regain control over his life, one has anger issues and another suffers memory losses from the explosion that destroyed his jeep. Donnie’s dealing with survivor’s guilt at the death of his best friend and his promise to watch over his buddy’s widow, Julia. To no one’s surprise, she’s a beautiful young singer (Laura Osnes) who performs with the band. The band must win the state finals and deal with some financial issues before getting to N.Y. to compete for the coveted movie role.

Although these could be veterans from any war, the play focuses on veterans of World War II, which allows Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor (book and lyrics) to create period music, notably swing. Music plays the pivotal role in this production, and Bandstand features some musicians as the performers. The musicians are terrific, even those making their acting debuts.

Predictably, Donnie and Julia fall in love. Cott proves he’s an appealing leading man. Both Osnes and Cott are in good voice, looking and sounding natural together. However, had the musical focused on recent wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), the show might have attracted younger audiences with more current music.

Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler includes some exciting swing dancing, and there is a creative number featuring dancers who follow the soldiers as if they are shadows of their younger selves in combat.

The show goes on too long, with what feels like extraneous scenes and music. What started out so promising in Bandstand gets clichéd in the end. Predictably, the girl gets the guy and the band gets help from the local fans, and I kept wishing that the show had been about Dick Clark’s Bandstand instead.