On July 17th, 1918, the Bolsheviks lined up the members of the Russian imperial family and executed them. Rumors soon spread that some of the Romanovs, including Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, survived the firing squad, and at least five women claimed to be her in the following decades. They were deluded at best.
The story of Anastasia’s possible survival is exactly the sort that whips the imagination into a froth, however. It spawned two movies — one in 1956 with Ingrid Bergman, who was no stranger to playing a woman who stirred up complicated memories, and another in 1997, with a talking albino bat. An award-winning 2016 musical was adapted out of the latter (albeit free of bats), and it is coming live to Minneapolis this spring.
In Anastasia, Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna offers a staggering reward for her long-lost granddaughter, which inspires two disreputable types to find a girl to pass off as the genuine article. They groom the amnesiac Anya for the ruse, only to discover they may have inadvertently found Anastasia herself. The musical features several songs from the animated feature along with dozens of new ones by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the creators of the Broadway classic Ragtime.
I got to speak with Jake Levy, the actor who plays the roguish hunk Dmitry in Anastasia. Reared in Long Island, Jake got his first big break in acting as a child when he starred in a Pizza Hut commercial. He followed up that success with a part in an ad for Chuck E. Cheese. Eager to pursue roles that didn’t revolve around pizza, Jake studied theater at the University of California and performed in Rent, Hairspray, and Superhero, and also Carrie as the unfortunate Tommy Ross.
“I got my first role onstage in an off-Broadway production of Take Me Along,” said Jake. “It was somewhat daunting as a ten year old surrounded by adult actors who were working full-time. Now I see kids that same age in the crew of Anastasia, keeping up with the rest of the cast, and I feel this certain nostalgia…”
“My character Dmitry’s transformation is amazing. He starts out as a street rat con man who sees Anya as a paycheck — not a great guy. But after meeting her, he and his partner in crime Vlad learn to become better people, and unite in the common goal of discovering Anya’s true identity. Of course Dmitry falls in love with the girl, too.
“I always get excited talking about how beautiful Anastasia is. The production’s costume designer Linda Cho won a Tony for her work on A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and the ‘Big Red Dress’ that she designed, as we call it, is spectacular. It also weighs 35 pounds, so I’m amazed that my costar Lila Coogan is able to stand up in it! The backdrop functions like a giant TV screen, which emits its own light as it fills the stage with moving scenery. I love singing my main song ‘My Petersburg’ as a river flows behind me.
“Anastasia is meant to impress on every sensual level, and it’s great for every age. If you’re 80, you’ll level with the Dowager Empress who yearns to reconnect with her estranged granddaughter. If you’re little, you’ll be swept up in the child’s idea of princesses.
“This musical resonates so well not because of its history lesson, but because of its story of home, love, and family. Everyone can really relate to the importance of where you come from, and why you are who you are. It’s an especially empowering story for girls, which we always need more of these days, but anyone will be inspired by Anya’s determination to become her true self.”
Anastasia will play live at the Orpheum Theatre March 24th through April 5th. Don’t forget to order your tickets online at hennepintheatretrust.org.
By David Scheller