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Anastasia by Abbey Roberts, Jeri Katz, and Reghan Hovell-Wilkins

Posted by on Friday, March 29, 2019 in Blog posts.

The National Tour of the Broadway hit musical Anastasia was at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville from March 19th through 24th. The audience consisted of a wide range of Nashvillians, from young families to older couples. Abbey Roberts, Jeri Katz, and Reghan Hovell-Wilkins met in a Rand booth one afternoon to discuss the March 19th performance they all saw.


Abbey Roberts is a senior studying math, computer science, and Spanish, and after getting married this summer she will be starting graduate school in computer science. She enjoys being a rehearsal accompanist for choirs and musical theatre productions, and she is always down for a good cup of black coffee.


Jeri Katz is sophomore studying Secondary Education and Mathematics from Memphis, TN. She enjoys performing, whether as a dancer in Vanderbilt’s Premier Latin dance group VIDA, a instrumentalist in different productions, or a singer in her spare time.


Reghan Hovell-Wilkins is a junior Ingram Scholar studying Human & Organizational Development and Business from Memphis, TN. She enjoys eating out and chilling with the homies in her free time.


RH: What about the production did you all find the most interesting?


JK: The most interesting thing for me was the set, because I was curious about how they were going to transition between the different sets. Have y’all seen the movie Anastasia?


RH: No


AR: A long time ago


JK: Basically it goes from being in a palace to being on the streets of St. Petersburg, so it is very juxtaposing settings, and the way that they did those transitions onstage was so seamless. With the electronic panels in the background and the things they chose to use as props and how they transitioned between scenes was so flawless and smooth. It made the story feel so continuous and there weren’t any abrupt stops. It was something done in theatre that couldn’t be done in a different setting that I thought was so cool.


RH: I second that. The fact that they were able to use the different projectors for the different scenes that were taking place was probably the most pertinent part of it, and they really did not use that many props on stage: maybe just a bench here or there or that train that they used.


JK: The train was so cool!


RH: That was really cool, and that probably kept their production cost down which is nice.


JK: Especially since they are a national tour, they are travelling with this stuff. It is not like they are staying on one stage, but they are travelling all across the country. I am sure that makes it a bit easier for them.


AR: What was most interesting to me was the level of dance skill. It was full-on ballet on pointe, Russian folk dance, and classical dance. It required high dance skill to pull it off. It made it really beautiful and was an important part of the story to the culture that they were trying convey.


JK: I am really glad that they had such a strong emphasis on the juxtaposition of the royal and commoner culture and the old and new cultures.That is such a big part of the story, these two different worlds, and seeing that shown in dance was really interesting.


AR: They start off with the whole palace dance scene, and pretty quickly after, Anastasia has her awkward, clumsy dance with Dimitri.


RH: What encapsulated you most into the performance? What made this something that was worthwhile watching or drew to you the most about the play, whether it be the lyrical choices, the dance, etc?


JK: My thing about the show is, I have seen the movie, and they edited the music and the plotline from the movie to the stage to make it a little more of a production as opposed to just a movie. That’s something when I first found out that Anastasia was going to be a Broadway play, I was curious about how they were going to pull all of those things off. What made it an enticing show to me was that if I wanted just watch the movie, I would watch the movie, you know? It is these edits that made it a bit more appropriate for the stage that made it more interesting for me. Updating and making a more modern take of the movie made it more important for me.


AR: The fact that it was a professional production, I knew I was going to see something that was really, really good.


JK: They were all so impressive!


AR: Yeah, amazing singers! I did not even realize the level of dance skill. In the middle, I was very impressed by that. We have said the set was amazing and professionaly done. The tech was seamless. Being able to go and see a professional touring show with such a well-established, professional, and experienced cast. Looking through the program beforehand, there were so many of them who had leading roles on Broadway and are doing this tour.


JK: The person who played Dimitri (Stephen Brower) was the understudy for Dimitri for the Broadway show, and now he is playing Dimitri in the national tour, and I think it is so cool that you see someone who was in the Broadway production…


AR: But here in Nashville.


RH: This is a German fairytale, right?


AR and JK: It is Russian.


AR: It is based on actual history.


JK: Yeah, the Romanovs. Anastasia is someone who genuinely existed.


RH: So this is a genuine historical family and based off a true story. I had no context going into this play. I was just going to go see it.


JK: The Romanovs were an actual royal family that existed and got taken down, to put it not very lightly. The story of them, the Russian noble family being murdered, is true, and there was the myth for a long time about the lost princess still being alive


RH: That gives me a lot more to say about this. As far as being the intended spectator, I think that as a black woman who does enjoy being somewhat culturally competent, it was interesting to hear historical stories from different cultures and countries in general. I definitely feel like I might not have been able to take away as much from the performance as someone who lives in Russia, for example, and knows the deep rooted history within the country. It gave me an insight. They killed the family due to trying to take over power?


JK: Yes. Revolution.


RH: So different revolutionary ideas. What about you guys? (to JK) I feel like you were the intended spectator.


JK: Part of what made us the intended spectator was the new villian that was introduced, Gleb. The expectation of carrying on a legacy of the people behind you kind of made people around our age the intended spectator. People who are coming up in the world and having to decide how we carry our family’s legacy. That change, Gleb and what his character stood for, that made us the intended audience. Also someone who grew up watching the movie is the intended audience which is definitely me.


AR: That’s interesting. I would say I identify more with Anastasia’s growing up and trying to find her true self in the midst of a world that is confusing and that she does not understand. That is very relatable for our age group. Trying to figure out what your place is in this world, are you someone special, and what your identity is are all important questions in my life, so I resonated with that a lot.


RH: How would you describe the acting and design? The thing that stood out to me the most in the acting is the fact that the storyline historically is an intense one and is a depressing topic, and theatrically they had to make it more enjoyable and light-hearted through the lyrical performances, choreography, costumes, set design which were all very beautiful. The biggest thing in the acting that gave me comedic relief, relief from the storyline in general, was the comedy behind it. For example during the love scenes they would make it more comedic to the audience, and that scene in the park when Vlad and Lilly reunite was the funniest part to me.


JK: Part of that definitely is that it’s based on a children’s movie; part of the intention is that it’s made for audiences of all ages, and that’s where that comedy comes from. It could easily be a much more depressing story about death and all of that.


AR: There was a little girl sitting right next to me who was not a very good theatre audience member…


[Jeri and Reghan laugh]


AR: … She was really cute! And she kept leaning over and asking her mom questions like, “did they die?” She was trying to follow the storyline and her mom was having to quitely explain it to her, which was really cute, but she was clearly enjoying the spectacle of it and trying to understand the story. It didn’t show them explicitly dying at the beginning. You heard the gunshots…


JK: Yeah you saw the firing squad.


AR: But you didn’t actually see the execution happen, so it does take some intelligence and context to understand that’s what’s going on. For younger audiences, it’s more the pretty colors and lights that get their attention.


RH: Was it effective as a live piece of theatre?


AR: I agree with what Jeri said earlier; that the way they did it was something you could only do in theatre with the way they whisk between places. Also, the technology is incredible and, the level of technology used to make this story happen couldn’t have happened even twenty years ago. The projections and technology in the set design make it possible as a piece of theatre.


RH: Because the story is so deep within their culture, technology is the only thing that makes it hit you as hard as it should. Especially with it being a universal play that can be performed, whether on Broadway or here in Nashville, you have to have that level of technology or the impact it would have had on us as spectors would not have been what it was.


JK: Definitely. And the technology is what kept some of the light-heartedness. A lot of the scene transitions that happen are in more depressing spots, and the fact that they moved so seamlessly kept the flow going. Versus if you had to stop and change a set, the audience would have to sit and think about the depressing moment for a long while.


AR: And the places were also super important to the story itself. The city of St. Petersburg was almost a character in and of itself.


JK: And Paris especially too.


AR: Yeah going to Paris was talked about from the beginning, and so you couldn’t half-heartedly say “this is Paris;” you have to be able to show the Eiffel tower and that it’s recognizably Paris. That was important to telling the story.


RH: How is the community being served by the telling of this story?


AR: Somewhat interestingly it’s never a bad thing at this point in time to tell a positive story about Russia.


RH: Oh gosh yeah the political climate.


AR: You can’t avoid politics, and the things we hear about Russia are negative: they are the enemy, they are bad, they are causing harm.


JK: This story isn’t particularly positive about Russia though. The whole point is they are trying to get out of Russia, no matter how much they still miss their old culture, the fact is it has changed and there’s nothing they can do about that other than leave.


AR: That is true, but there is something redemptive to seeing a positive character out of Russian heritage.


RH: Yeah


JK: That’s fair


RH: It makes us understand we’re all going to have good and bad. Our history in the United States is far from perfect. At the end of the day we have our own crap to deal with too, just as they do. And they could probably put on a spectacle of a story historically about the United States in Russia, and they would probably be saying the same things.


AR: Can we talk about the ending? At the end the Duchess says Anastasia is her granddaughter, but if she is her granddaughter she can’t be with Dmitri, and so the Duchess tells her to do what she needs to do. And so she goes off with Dmitri, and the Duchess goes to the press conference and says it’s just a myth, Anastasia had definitely died. And then Gleb says Anastasia is definitely dead. But they both knew she really was Anastasia, they just walk off the back of the set into the sunset.


JK: In terms of motivation, if Gleb had come back and said he didn’t kill her, he would be put to death.


AR: He definitely needed to say she was dead; this is true.


JK: In terms of the grandmother, she wanted her granddaughter to have a peaceful life.


RH: Yeah, happy.


JK: The life that Anastasia knows as Anya, that’s not a noble life, and being thrown into this noble world while being probably really exciting and fanciful would be really hard. And not what she’s grown up with, and the Duchess understood that and wanted to give her that choice. Most people don’t have a choice of whether they want to be a noble family or a street urchin.


RH: That also ties into the redemptive aspect once again. The fact that her grandmother, despite how bitter she was with everything that’s happened, she allowed her grandchild back in her life and now is allowing her to be at peace and be happy. Despite the turmoil that’s going on in Russia and their history, there definitely are good story endings. That’s a tough position to be in with a royal family, but telling the world that you’re granddaughter’s dead is a big step. Anastasia was never a big part of it anyways.


JK: Well she was so young. Did you guys like the story?


RH: Yeah it was cool. I was confused at some points just because I didn’t know what the story was about and now that you guys told me the historical context it clicks.


JK: I thought the leads were incredible. I was worried that certain leads would overpower others just because the show is so focused on Anastasia, but I feel like everybody had a strong stage presence.


RH: I feel like if the story did not have a historical truth behind it, I don’t believe I would have cared about it. You know what I mean?


AR: [Chuckles] Yeah, like “this is cute.”


RH: Yeah, like this is an okay play.


AR: I think it is also important to note that there was real talk about Anastasia being alive. You couldn’t just take any tragedy and make up a legend about it.


RH: Is this a Broadway play you would want to go back and see?


JK: Oh yeah. I mean I wanted to see it on Broadway, but I don’t have access to that.


RH: This play does not have the same appeal to me as a cliche story like Wicked which is one of those plays that I could see over and over again. Anastasia isn’t on the same level for me.


JK: That’s totally fair. But why not?


RH: Maybe if I had more context into the history of the story I could have a deeper level of appreciation for it. But as a play itself and given I know very surface level information about it, it doesn’t hold that much weight for me because at the end of the day to me it’s just a story of a girl who is in search of her family and then finds them only for them to keep her a secret so she can be with her love interest. But with Wicked it’s just different because I have a whole childhood of The Wizard of Oz.


JK: It’s also because the story of Anastasia balances between real life and myth. Part of that is almost attainable, where with Wicked you’re in this whole new fantastical magical world that you can immerse yourself into. But with Anastasia it is real world but it is also myth because of the story tale version of it.


AR: Anastasia was a spectacle but not the same level spectacle as Wicked. You can’t have people flying because it’s the real world and that doesn’t happen. You can have incredible displays of dance talent and a cool train that moves around and spins, but you can’t add anything else that is magical because it wouldn’t go with the story.


JK: That is something that is in the original animated movie is that the original villain is not a comrade, he is a voodoo man basically and that is why they changed it to Gleb and kind of a more realistic villain. They wanted more realism to be seen as opposed to focusing on the production value of magic. I would recommend watching the movie; he’s really creepy and not suited for children.


AR: Why bring this production to Nashville?


JK: That is a question I’ve been asking myself about national tours in general. There are these official spaces that National Tours just go like in big cities like they just have their rounds.


RH: Yeah, I feel like realistically that is probably what this is. I don’t think there is a specific reason on Nashville specifically.


JK: When Vanderbilt or Vanderbilt University Theatre or Vanderbilt Off-Broadway makes a decision about what they are going to perform, it’s different. It’s just this is a National Tour show making its rounds.


AR: Why do you think they brought it on national tour?


JK: I hate to say money. But everything is about capitalism.


[Reghan and Abigail laugh]


RH: I feel pretty much like every major country or culture in general tries to embrace some story so maybe this story has such relevance to where Russia is today, maybe politically to give more awareness into present circumstances. Because in Snow in Midsummer, for example, there is such historical context behind that which is crucial to Chinese culture.


JK: Yeah, and there is tons of history of revolution inside of Russia.


RH: I feel like it’s been produced to just make people more aware of just life and other people in this world. So I guess this is just that staple story.


AR: It’s very much a story of hope with the people of Russia hoping she’s still alive. Anastasia hoping she can find her family and then Dimitri hoping she actually is Anastasia and then hoping she isn’t and then hoping they can still be together.


[Reghan and Jeri laugh]


AR: There are a lot of layers of hope in the story. People just like hopeful stories because they make us feel good. We want to believe that there is something more out there.


JK: In terms of one of the songs stating that, “when things are looking dreary” you look to those hopeful stories. When the state of Russia is awful sometimes or the United States is awful sometimes. When any place is awful and you look to these mythical humans or stories like Anastasia.


4 Comments on “Anastasia by Abbey Roberts, Jeri Katz, and Reghan Hovell-Wilkins”

I really enjoyed watching the musical Anastasia and reading the above response. The first thing that I noticed was that Abbey, Jeri, and Reghan began by discussing the set and comparing it to the movie. I grew up watching the movie Anastasia, so I noticed early on that the set was a great representation of the set in the movie. It was clear to me that the musical gained a lot of inspiration from the movie. Jeri pointed out how the “transition between scenes was so flawless and smooth.” I thought that this was very accurate. I noticed that no crew members had to come onto stage to move props around. Instead, they were either moved electronically or effortlessly by actors on stage. This allowed the whole performance to come off as being way more realistic. Something else that I really liked about the set was the electronic panels that Jeri also mentioned. These electronic panels stayed on stage the whole musical. They showed multiple very clear images throughout the performance that made one feel like they were experiencing a whole new set, while really it was the same panels the whole time. I thought that this was very smart of the set designers and was also something that I had never seen before in any other musical. Next, Abbey brings up the great dance skills of the performers. This was something else that really stood out to me. The opening scene begins with Anastasia’s family dancing across the stage. It was beautiful to watch and really brought the performance to life early on. My favorite scene in the whole musical also centers around dance. Towards the end of the performance there is a ballet scene in which Anastasia comes into close contact with her grandmother for the first time. Very skillful ballet dancers did a beautiful performance from Swan Lake that blew my breath away. By combining professional dance and beautiful music, I was able to be fully drawn into the performance. Jeri mentions how there was a new villain that was introduced, Gleb. In the movie, Rasputin was the villain which would have been unrealistic if it was shown on the stage. I think it was smart to add Gleb in instead. However, I did not like the ending scene in which Gleb holds as gun to Anastasia’s head and decides not to shoot. I mean I’m glad he didn’t kill her, but the whole thing just seemed incredibly unrealistic. Why would this guy who has gone out of his way to travel all the way to France suddenly decide not to follow through on the plan he has been devising for months? It became clear to me that the writers of the musical were trying to add in a villain that would fit into the play so that it could follow the same sequence of events that the movie followed. I wish that they had made some more changes to the musical in order to fit in a more realistic villain instead. Reghan, Jeri, and Abbey later talk about the actress and actors, stating that “the leads were incredible.” I completely agree with this statement. I think that the singing, dancing, and acting of all of the characters was amazing. It was so much better than I had ever expected. I rarely get to go to professional musicals, and was very grateful for the opportunity to see really talented performers here in Nashville. This was a great musical and I highly recommend seeing it!

Gabriella Blum on March 31st, 2019 at 3:56 pm

I haven’t seen the movie Anastasia in about 15 years, so I also had no expectations going into this performance. Like the authors of this analysis, I was blown away by the projections and scene changes. To create a performance taking place in two totally different cities (St. Petersburg and Paris) is no easy feat, and the designers did it seamlessly. I was also impressed with how funny and lighthearted the show was, given the dark source material and overall plot. Anastasia is a very sad show at its core, but the scenes with Vlad and Lilly (and Vlad’s character as a whole) gave the overall performance a very balanced, not overwhelming feel to it.

The authors also talk about the spectacle of the show and compared it to Wicked a bit, saying that Anastasia couldn’t be as big a spectacle because it’s based on real life. While there isn’t actual magic or flying in this show, I think it was a huge spectacle with elements of magical realism to some extent. The dream sequences with Anastasia’s younger self, the execution scene in the back of her confrontation with Gleb, the projections themselves, the train set – yes, the show is based on a true story, but there was still a major element of fantasy. I feel like they took the idea of the “myth of Anastasia” and ran with that in the design process, because the whole thing looks and feels like a fairly tale or a daydream.

As someone who works backstage in student productions here at Vanderbilt, I also loved getting to see a traveling national tour production. It absolutely blows my mind that their set travels with them across the country and that they have to load-in and load-out so frequently. To me, that made the projections and fly systems even more impressive, because they have to set everything up perfectly at each individual theatre. There’s an art to the design certainly, but I also saw the art in the people working to make the show happen in each city.

Madison Lindeman on April 3rd, 2019 at 2:56 pm

I find that the use of projections during a show can be tricky, and you need to be able to find a balance between adding important elements to the show, creating a sense of realism, and looking fake. For the most part, projections in the show worked really well, like during the ball scene and when they approach Paris from over the hill. However, some scenes did not work as well, like when they zoomed over Paris – it was slightly dizzying and the animations looked fake. It really took me out of the show.

Going in, I was worried about the addition of Gleb as a villain instead of Rasputin, since I am a huge fan of the movie. However, I thought he worked really well and was realistic, and his conflict drew you into the story more. While we lost “In the Dark of the Night,” we gained “The Neva Flows” and “Still,” and the level of skill required to play this role is on par with Phantom. I was also concerned that we would lose Anya and Dimitri’s prior connection when he saved her from the palace, but their new story gave us “In a Crowd of Thousands,” so I was fine with it. I also loved “In My Dreams,” an I Am song to introduce Anastasia earlier on, since “Once Upon a December” comes later in the show.

Lily Jaremski on April 4th, 2019 at 8:06 am

I enjoyed reading this thoughtful dialogue between Abbey, Jeri, and Reghan. I found it especially interesting reading their discussion on the impact of switching stages throughout a tour of performances. In my opinion, it would be difficult to adjust to the new space. However, having personally seen the show on Broadway, I felt that this production was the same quality level as the Broadway production. Therefore, I the change in physical spaces did not mess up the professional actors in their performances. Separately, I, too, was intrigued by the incredible skill showcased in the production. Abbey discussed the beauty of the ballet on point mid-show, which also served to advance the plot. Furthermore, I was also impressed by the juxtaposition of the royal and commoner cultures. Branching off from this discussion, I felt that the costumes especially highlighted the discrepancy between these two cultures. Finally, I enjoyed reading about Reghan and Jeri’s discussion on the historical truth of this story. I think that seeing this revolution portrayed on stage while knowing that it is a true story is particularly impactful.

Jacqueline Rhoads on April 16th, 2019 at 4:42 pm

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