One of the joys of theatre-going is the occasional surprise that makes you hold your breath and feel as if you are the only one experiencing what is happening on stage and tonight, at the opening of "Anastasia" at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, it happened when Beth Stafford Laird, as the title character, sang "In My Dreams". I don't know if the other over 2,000 people in the audience even knew that she was an understudy for the lead who couldn't go on tonight but it didn't make a difference because we all fell in love with her. Playing Anya, who may or may not be the only surviving member of her Russian Imperial Romanov family consisting of her father, mother, 3 sisters and a brother all who were killed by the Bolsheviks when she was 17 in 1917.
We follow her life when she is found in 1927 as a woman who has no recollection of her previous life and is making a living sweeping the streets in St. Petersburgh. There have been many rumors that the youngest daughter had survived and many were impersonating her in order to cash in on the riches her grandmother the Dowager Empress, now living in Paris, has.
Two con men audition many girls to be Anastasia, finally deciding that Anya has 'something' that will work and they go about teaching her, yet there is something in Anya that makes her believe she really is the granddaughter of the Empress.
Based on two movies, one an animated film, it is an easy enough story to follow and has many stereotyped characters but Beth Stafford Laird makes you believe in her so the story works. It certainly helps that she has a voice that reaches up to the rafters but you also see her gain strength as she believes in herself more and more.
Tari Kelly and Edward Staudenmayer take stock musical characters and bring them the freshness and fun they require while Stephen Brower as one of the con men, and a love interest for Anya, has a strong voice and an earnestness the role requires. Jason Michael Evans has a very underwritten role that leaves you wondering whether he is an alternative love for Anya or villain out to get her. His singing of 2 solos, plus duets and ensemble pieces, soars over the auditorium. Joy Franz as the Dowager Empress shows the steel and softness the woman is called upon to show to whomever she is facing.
The book by Terrence McNally, the music by Stephen Flaherty and the lyrics by Lynn Ahrens do their job but words must be said about the projection designs by Aaron Rhyne that have set a high standard for part of theatre productions today. The musicians under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg give the singers a chance to be heard by not overwhelming them but underscoring them.
I walked away from this production hoping that Beth Stafford Laird will be returning to Fort Lauderdale soon in another show!