Marley Sophia (Little Anastasia) and Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) in the North American Tour of Anastasia
Marley Sophia (Little Anastasia) and Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) in the North American Tour of Anastasia. (Jeremy Daniel)

Gerri Weagraff, 64, who is at the center of two musical numbers, is realizing a lifelong dream as she and her husband, Paul Weagraff, navigate the empty nester phase.

A musical rooted in Russian history became a catalyst for reactions based on current events as Anastasia tours the country and will stop May 3-8 at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.

The production, set in Russia and France and developed years before the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, explores the actions of young women claiming the identity of a daughter of Czar Nicholas II after his family was killed by a group of Bolsheviks in 1918. 

Imposters have maintained Anastasia escaped execution. 

Gerri Weagraff
Gerri Weagraff

“In West Palm Beach, we had three straight performances where audiences vigorously applauded at a line that I say,” said Gerri Weagraff, who takes the role of Dowager Empress, mother of the czar and grandmother of Anastasia. “It was so interesting because the line is ‘Russia has damned itself to eternity for what it has done.’ 

“For my character, I was saying it because her son and her son’s children had been murdered, but it took this current day twist when I said that line [that] sparked this statement of applause. 

“Immediately, I knew what was happening, and it was fascinating to me. It was spontaneous and different from any other kind of applause. This reaction came as soon as I said that line, and it was so loud and sustained [that] we had to stop and freeze the moment until the applause died down. I will never forget that.”

Weagraff wanted to be part of this musical since seeing it on Broadway with a pre-pandemic version that featured her son’s fiancee. The book is by Terrence McNally, and the score is by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics).

“I love the fact that it is such a gorgeous show, costume-wise and set-wise,” Weagraff said. “Characters are compelling and likeable, and there is something for everyone — romance, mystery, adventure.

“It appeals to all ages. The little ones will love watching a story about a princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess. Some of the young adults will remember the 1997 animated film Anastasia that they fell in love with and will fall in love with the musical as well. History buffs will be interested in the historical aspect of the production.”

Weagraff, 64, who is at the center of two musical numbers, is realizing a lifelong dream as she and her husband, Paul Weagraff, navigate the empty nester phase. Although the sometime-actress appeared in community theater before and during her work as a radio newscaster and public relations specialist, professional aspirations remained. 

Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) and Kyla Stone (Anya) in the North American Tour of Anastasia
Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) and Kyla Stone (Anya) in the North American Tour of Anastasia Jeremy Daniel
The Importance of Fiddler

“My mother’s father was in Yiddish theater, and my parents were both in community theater,” said Weagraff, who lives in Delaware after growing up in Pennsylvania with the beginnings of performance experiences. “I appeared in Detroit with a 2010 production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Fox Theatre.”

Fiddler productions have been important throughout her life. Besides the professional tour, she has joined her parents, husband and children in staging community versions.

Weagraff met her husband, retired from being both a history teacher and director of the Delaware Division of the Arts, during a 1986 Fiddler production. As she played Tzeitel and he played Motel, her mother had the role of Yente (the matchmaker). 

“When our youngest child went off to college, I saw a notice for the national tour of Fiddler,” she recalled. “I never would have thought about a tour before that, and it was only on a whim that I auditioned not even thinking it was going to lead to anything.

“I got cast in 2010 when I was in my mid-50s, and my husband said I had to go do it. I toured for two years. I was Shandel the first year and Golde during the second year.”

Casting in regional theater continued after that, and her many roles included Grandma Rosie in The Wedding Singer at the Surflight Theatre in New Jersey, Dorothy Cleves in Any Wednesday at the Montgomery Theater in Pennsylvania, Ethel McCormack in Footloose at the Fireside Theatre in Wisconsin and Miss Hannigan in Annie at the Candlelight Theatre in Delaware.

In her current part, Weagraff gets to project a range of moods, from first act scenes where she is depicted as loving and caring to a later act scene where she comes across as cold-hearted. Her two songs reflect these different expressions.

“Once Upon a December” is a recurring motif that has to do with the relationship shared by the Dowager Empress and Anastasia. “Close the Door” has to do with reaching a point of not wanting to talk to any more imposters. 

Details

Anastasia will be performed May 3-8 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased at ticketmaster.com. (313) 872-1000, ext. 0. Proof of full vaccination or negative test required along with masking.

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Suzanne Chessler’s writing-editing career has spanned many years, and her articles have been featured in secular and religious publications across the state and around the country. There was a period of time when she maintained three regular columns in three different publications – one appearing weekly to spotlight metro volunteers, another appearing weekly to profile stage enthusiasts in community theater and a third appearing bimonthly to showcase upcoming arts programs. Besides doing general reporting, she has had continuing assignments involving health, monetary subjects and crime. Her award-winning work builds on majors in English-speech and journalism earned at Wayne State University, where instructors also were writers-editors on Detroit’s daily newspapers.