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Derek Klena and Anastasia—Broadway’s Mysterious 'Journey to the Past'

October 27, 2017 - by Elliott Richards
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In the early scenes of the musical Anastasia, the setting morphs from the extravagant Imperial Palace ballroom in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1917, to a drab street scene in what has become Leningrad, 1927, filled with desperate and struggling locals. Yet even with political banners touting the success of the Russian Revolution looming in the background, a rumor is rapidly spreading: the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the Bolsheviks’ killings of her family—Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, and her four siblings—nine years earlier.

Derek Klena’s Dmitry and Christy Altomare’s Anastasia with Russia as a backdrop. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Derek Klena’s Dmitry and Christy Altomare’s Anastasia with Russia as a backdrop. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

“It’s a rumor/It’s a legend, a mystery,” the ensemble sings. “Something whispered in an alleyway or through a crack/It’s a rumor/That’s part of our history.”

Adding to the intrigue is word that Anastasia’s grandmother—the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil)—who moved to Paris two decades before, is offering a substantial reward should Anastasia be returned to her.

Anya (Christy Altomare) may or may not be Anastasia. When we meet her, she is an amnesiac street sweeper with vague memories of a (possible) royal past. Enter two con men: young Dmitry (Derek Klena) and the older, louche Vlad (John Bolton), who seize the opportunity to cash in on the bounty by auditioning young women to “play” Anastasia.

After casting Anya—and transforming her (a la My Fair Lady) into a more upscale version of herself—they set off for Paris, pursued by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a Russian military officer who, while somewhat smitten by Anya, is locked into orders to kill her should she prove to be the real Anastasia.

Those familiar with the beloved animated film version, celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, will find that while the stage musical differs in many ways (no Rasputin, for example), the romance between Anya and Dmitry remains. And for a certain audience demographic, it doesn’t hurt that Klena is a dashing dead-ringer for his celluloid counterpart—or that Altomare is breathtaking in her Act II Paris gowns.    

Derek Klena’s Dmitry and Christy Altomare’s Anastasia

Derek Klena’s Dmitry and Christy Altomare’s Anastasia with Russia as a backdrop. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Altomare and Klena’s stage chemistry is enhanced by their history, having been cast as a couple in the 2012 Off-Broadway revival of Carrie. “The comfort level and trust, along with our friendship, has been a huge plus,” says Klena, who juggled sports, acting, and singing in his school years, performing in a children’s theatre group before moving on to regional shows.

“I got into UCLA for theatre, but had done pretty good in high school as a pitcher, so in my freshman year I decided to pitch on UCLA’s baseball team. But between baseball and acting it was kind of like playing two sports,” he says. His choice to follow his acting passion has clearly paid off—but sports’ training has also proven valuable. “My athletic background has helped my coordination and kept me in good shape,” he adds.

In addition to the cast, Klena cites the show’s projections as a vital part of Anastasia’s success on stage. Created by video and production designer Aaron Rhyne, the visuals let audiences “see” snow, explosions, St. Petersburg, Paris, and the countryside rushing past a stunningly conceived train (by scenic designer Alexander Dodge) that Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad board in Russia for their perilous trip to France.    

The Tony-winning team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote most of the songs for the animated movie, wrote many more for Broadway’s Anastasia. Still, the musical’s show-stopping moment comes when Anya sings “Journey to the Past,” their Oscar-nominated breakout song.         

“Life is full of choices/No one ever mentions fear/Or how the world can seem so vast/On a Journey to the Past…”     

As for the book, Ahrens and Flaherty reunited with four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally, their collaborator on Ragtime.

Anastasia’s Broadway hit status is proof of the story’s broad, multi-generational appeal. “There’s the expected young female fan base,” Klena says, noting that younger theatregoers— who may have never even seen the movie—will likely latch onto the fairy tale aspects. “But many adults tell us what the show means to them, whether they’re from Russia, or they’re adopted, or they’ve found family members—they find a connection to the show.”

anastasia broadway

Photo by Matthew Murphy.


Anastasia is playing at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. For reservations call 212-239-6200 or visit anastasiabroadway.com.

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