Anastasia the musical is an intriguing, romantic tale with references to history, starring Jewish actor Jason Michael Evans.
By Suzanne Chessler
Featured photo courtesy of Evan Zimmerman
Intrigue — real and invented — surrounds the name of Anastasia, especially for writers.
The real Anastasia, a member of the once powerful Romanov family killed during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia at the time of World War I, became the subject of news commentary as Anastasia impersonators claimed escape from death.
Although the death ultimately was widely accepted with the use of DNA testing, the idea of survival and getaway from what turned into the Soviet Union served as the starting point for diverse works of fiction, including an animated musical film developed as a fantasy for young audiences.
Now comes another variation on theme with the stage musical Anastasia, which is planned for a wide audience and playing June 11-23 at the Fisher Theatre. The storyline creates new directions for the title character, whose amnesia leads her into a web of adventure.
“Other than the [timeframe of the story], there isn’t much historical accuracy,” says Jason Michael Evans, who is taking the role of Gleb, an up-and-coming Soviet officer who has strong feelings about the new regime but also has very strong feelings for a young girl who might be the lost princess of the Romanov dynasty.
“We’re telling a story of fiction historicized, not history fictionalized. The fictional story just happens to have a few names in common with characters from history.”
Evans, appearing in the play since September, defines the production as “heartwarming.” It moves forward as the young woman at the center of the plot heads to Paris and finds romance along the way.
The book is by Terrance McNally with a score by the Ragtime team of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) adding numbers to some written for the animated film. Darko Tresnjak, a Tony Award winner, is director.
Evans, who began showcasing his singing talents in school and temple choirs while growing up in St. Louis, performs in musical numbers that include “The Neva Flows” and “Still.” The first moves from a Bolshevik anthem to tell Gleb’s own story. The second expresses Gleb’s romantic feelings that conflict with orders to kill Anastasia.
“I have always had this love for history, and I’ve always felt a connection between historical characters,” says Evans, who also sees the contrast. “Gleb grew up in a very tough time in Russia; his parents were killed in World War I. I had a very quiet childhood; I sing and dance for a living, and I never held a gun in my life.
“Still, I do recognize how conflicted it can be seeing one thing in the moment, obviously not knowing how communism was going to turn out and thinking this might be the fix.”
Evans, 32 and single, started thinking about the possibilities of an entertainment career while in high school.
“I started doing plays, and I liked them enough to major in acting at the University of Missouri,” recalls Evans, who also pursued vocal studies at college and later with private teachers.
“I wanted to do some TV, so I moved to Los Angeles. After I was there for about three years, it became very clear that what I was most passionate about was musical theater, and I moved to New York in the fall of 2012, doing that ever since.”
Television credits include roles on Madame Secretary, The Good Cop for Netflix and General Hospital. Stage roles have placed him in New York productions of Passion and On Your Toes! as well as regional productions of Beauty and the Beast, Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof.
Although there is no Jewish content in Anastasia, there are lyrics that remind Evans of lyrics in Fiddler on the Roof. Both sets have to do with leaving a homeland because of the threat of persecution.
“My upbringing was very heavily molded by everything Jewish,” says Evans. “I was very active in Jewish youth groups, and I went to Jewish summer camp my whole life, whether I was a counselor or camper. I played in the Maccabi games, and I played baseball for three years.
“Whenever I’m in St. Louis, I’ll take my grandfather to temple for Torah study on Saturday mornings. Last time I was there, we had breakfast with the rabbi emeritus.”
Now based in New York, Evans also stays close to relatives by visiting his sister’s family in Chicago. On the road, he plays tennis, practices yoga and reads for relaxation.
“I love all the emotions expressed in Anastasia, a show for all ages,” he says.
Anastasia runs June 11-23 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
Tickets start at $39.
(313) 872-1000, ext. 0.