Fall Arts Preview 2021: Theater

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Broadway in Richmond returns to the Altria Theater on Oct. 26 with the Richmond premiere of “Anastasia.” Known for its sumptuous costumes, lavish scenery and gripping story, the musical provides the kind of entertainment many of us missed during the prolonged period of pandemic-darkened stages.  

“Anastasia” transports audiences to the twilight of Czar Nicholas II’s rule in Russia, leading to the Russian Revolution and the execution of Nicholas, along with his wife and the five Romanov children, by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918.  

Not long after the Romanovs were killed, rumors surfaced that the family’s precocious youngest, Anastasia, and her younger brother, Alexei, may have survived the assassination; they were thought to have been wearing jewels sewn into the linings of their clothing that protected them from gunshots. “Anastasia” follows the story of Anya, who realizes she is the escaped princess and travels to Paris to see her grandmother and discover her past.  

The musical premiered in 2016 and is drawn from a Fox Animation Studios film of the same name from 1997. It belongs to a lineage of stories about the young girl’s supposed survival and reclamation of the crown that includes a 1928 film, “Clothes Make the Woman”; a 1956 film, “Anastasia,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner; and a 1986 TV series, “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna.”

The Broadway show — like the productions that preceded it — has ties to Virginia. All were inspired by the story of Anna Anderson, a woman who lived in Charlottesville from 1968 to her death in 1984.

Anderson gained recognition in 1920, when she was taken to an asylum after having tried to jump off a bridge in Berlin. While there, another inmate reportedly noted that she resembled Anastasia. The rumor that she had escaped the execution and fled to Germany captivated the public’s attention. While many refused to believe Anderson was Anastasia, others embraced her and claimed she knew details about the Romanovs’ lives she couldn’t have known otherwise.  

In 1968, Anderson was brought to Charlottesville by Gleb Botkin, childhood playmate of the Romanov children and son of the family physician, Yevgeny Botkin, who was killed alongside the imperial family.  

In Charlottesville, Anderson married an adjunct professor named Jack Manahan, who, according to George Munro, professor of Russian History at Virginia Commonwealth University, began introducing himself as Czar Nicholas II’s son-in-law. Munro says the relationship between Manahan and Anderson was a marriage of convenience, that he wanted Anderson’s claim to the crown, perhaps for his own financial gain.

“Anderson tried six or seven times in courts in Germany and elsewhere to have her claims authenticated,” Munro says. “She lost every time.”  

In the early 1990s, DNA tests proved that Anastasia perished the night of the assassinations, and that Anderson wasn’t a Romanov. Some people, however, discounted that evidence.

“Even though Anderson’s claim has been refuted,” Munro says, “there’s a fairly large percentage of people who still believe she was Anastasia.”  

That belief may have been fueled by a sense of hope that someone could have survived such a nightmarish tragedy, that humans can be resilient in the face of so much devastation.  

The themes of resurrection and resilience — even though based on a myth — make “Anastasia” a timely show for a community confronting a pandemic. “Anastasia” runs through Oct.  31.

Brilliant Idea

At the Perkinson Center for the Arts & Education in Chester, another show addresses the themes of hope and resilience, this time in an immersive one-woman performance.  

An intimate theatrical experience involving audience participation, “Every Brilliant Thing” tells the story of a young woman who tries to convey to her suicidal mother the many “brilliant things” that make life worth living. It will be presented Sept. 17 to Oct. 3 and is directed by Julie Fulcher-Davis, artistic director of the Illuminated Stage, the resident theater company.

“The show has been on my bucket list since I read it years ago,” Fulcher-Davis says. “As I was planning this season, it kept coming back to me.”  

What intrigued Fulcher-Davis most about “Every Brilliant Thing” is the honest way the show addresses mental health. Rather than giving platitudes about depression, she says, the main character, played by local actress Audra Honaker, addresses mental health with honesty and openness. Through her vulnerability, she encourages audience members to “have compassion for others and to connect in our humanity,” Fulcher-Davis says.  


Playbills

9/11-10/23

The Swift Creek Mill Theatre presents “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” a musical comedy about modern day relationships. $44-$49. swiftcreekmill.com

9/17-10/3

The Henrico Theatre Company performs “A Bench in the Sun,” a comedy about friends who conspire to prevent the sale of their retirement home. $8-$10. Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. artsglenallen.com

9/23-10/30

“War in Pieces” is a one-act festival featuring four new plays written by military veterans about life-or-death moments. $30-$35. Firehouse Theatre. firehousetheatre.org

9/23-10/3

Cadence Theatre Company performs “Small Mouth Sounds,” a story of strangers who find themselves through meditation during a forest retreat. Theatre Gym. cadencetheatre.org

10/15-11/7

The Virginia Repertory Theatre performs Dominque Morisseau’s “Pipeline,” about a schoolteacher who deals with a challenging incident at her son’s boarding school. va-rep.org

11/14-11/15

The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen presents “All Together Now!” featuring Broadway hits performed by members of the Henrico Theatre Company. $10. artsglenallen.com