In ‘Anastasia,’ the Smith Center welcomes a fairy tale of lost royalty

Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Courtesy

An orphaned Russian girl with amnesia. Could she be a lost princess? Or a practiced fraud? Since we’re talking about a Broadway musical, we know the answer will be interesting, if not historically accurate.

First, a little background: In 1918, Bolsheviks assassinated the Russian Imperial family, ending 300 years of Romanov rule. The murders were shrouded in mystery, leading to rumors that the youngest daughter, 17-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia, had somehow escaped. That mystery bred claimants, impostors and a cottage industry of books, movies and plays. It took about 80 years to prove that Anastasia did not survive her execution.

But Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical, which premiered in Manhattan in 2017, tells a happier story. Inspired by the 1997 animated film of the same name, the musical imagines what might have happened if the young duchess survived, teamed with a pair of con men and set out to win back her identity. And in a way of speaking, the story is told by Broadway royalty: Tony Award winners contributed its score and book, the former by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Once on This Island) and the latter by Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman).

The play sidesteps the complicated politics of the Romanovs by telling the story from Anastasia’s point of view. “It’s filtered through the idealized memory of a daughter who lost her family,” director Darko Tresnjak says during a phone interview from New York City. “It’s a show that begins with a little girl and her grandmother. The little girl grows up, and we see her in her 20s dealing with identity and romance. There’s also a count and a countess in their 50s trying to rekindle their romance. There’s something for every age range. It’s a rare piece of entertainment that families can truly enjoy.”

Tresnjak remembers reading a biography of the last Russian tsar while suffering through pneumonia as a child in Yugoslavia. He became fascinated by the history of the Romanovs. So when the opportunity to direct Anastasia came along, Tresnjak realized he’d been preparing for the job his whole life. “It was a chance to revisit all that history,” Tresnjak says. “It was a very joyous process.”

Tresnjak says that if he had the opportunity to be a Romanov, he’d “absolutely not” take it. Forget the jewels, the palaces, the balls. He’d much rather direct shows. “With every show, you get to create a universe, and there’s nothing more rewarding than that.”

The Broadway run drew an “incredible outpouring of immigrant populations—young families from all over the world,” Tresnjak says. He realized that it was the “fairy-tale aspects” of Anastasia that were building such a diverse fandom. “If you’re an immigrant child, this is what you dream of. Maybe that’s what drew me to it. Even if you don’t have a big, extended family, there’s this irrational hope that somebody will take you by the hand and elevate you to a status of a princess—that dreams will come true.”

ANASTASIA August 20-25, days & times vary, $37-$138. Smith Center's Reynolds Hall, 702-749-2000.

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