There’s a lot going on the new national tour company of “Anastasia.” It’s quite the busy, magical musical for young and younger people (especially princess wannabes) and adults put together with a mindset to please almost everybody.
The tale of the young Russian girl who may or may not, might be, wants to be, the last surviving member of the Romanov family murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries has some 30 songs and is helmed by adult Broadway folks like playwright Terence McNally and the book and music team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
It displays dizzying projections of travel and train rides from Russian to Paris, dazzling costumes, a big voiced Anya-Anastasia in Lila Coogan, commissars and con men, Charleston dancing and even a mini-ballet performance of “Swan Lake.”
Besides worldwide rumors, this remarkable story is based on a 1997 Disney animated musical fantasy, which included Rasputin as a character (the latest musical does not), as well as a 1956 movie version that starred Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes.
And it has Joy Franz, the actress who grounds this hyperventilating production to a place where recognizable human emotions are at work as well as the dreamy elements of a fairy tale with historical roots.
Franz, as did Helen Hayes in the film, portrays the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the true last survivor of not only a royal family but a way of life, vanishing with her every breath — a woman who once gave a music box to a little girl.
“It’s a big production, a real Broadway show,” Franz said. “There’s a lot of really talented people, terrific singers and young performers.”
Franz knows her way around a musical — she’s worked with and for top composers from Bernstein to Sondheim — who seems to be a personal favorite. Her stage presence commands: You can’t take her eyes off her. It’s as if, whenever she comes or goes or remains still, she cools, but not freezes, the feverish energy and pace, not like a time out, but more as a time for flavoring, savoring the effect.
When she sings “Once Upon a December” with the little girl Anastasia, and later again in a reprise, or “Close the Door,” the voice is strong, clean, a kind of time machine of emotions.
“I thought always when I was growing up as a girl that I wanted to sing, to be a singer, but when I got to do the part of Julie in school—junior high school—I thought: ‘wow, singing and acting.’ That was a great discovery for me, what you could bring to a song with acting. I just loved doing that,” Franz said.
Her voice on the phone is instantly recognizable. She’s like that stranger you meet on the train and you talk about this and that and especially theater — so much so that you forget yourself and it could be snowing for all you know.
Franz came from somewhere else — Modesto, Kansas, Missouri. When she came to New York, that’s what she became. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m a New Yorker,” she said. “And that’s that.”
She sounds and looks fearless. As the Dowager Empress, Franz seems both regal and intimidating, full of controlled longing, hearing the sound that the past and memory makes. She is singular in her talk and presence.
Franz is also a person of the theater, that large and unique world that embraces stars and everyone else, where magic happens whether the spotlight hits you in the eyes, or the music captures you in the audience, or the whirly time catches you up in the wings, waiting and watching, or singing, or talking on stage. She is one member of a unique, sometimes vagabond tribe, with and sometimes without lines, waiting.
Her credits, going back to the 1970s and further, make up a kind of life — all these characters, these women, including a pants part in “Othello” as well as Amelia. They signify that this is what you do in theater—such as being an audience member, a reporter, and someone named Terry in Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” at the famed La Jolla Playhouse or Catherine in Bob Fosse’s “Pippin”or being the witch in “Into The Woods” or as Cinderella’s stepmother in the same Sondheim Show in a 1988 national tour or the neighbor woman, the servant woman and the beggar woman in Lorca’s “Blood Wedding at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex in New York.
Franz was also Susan in the original cast of Sondheim’s “Company” and she was one of the Street Singers in Bernstein’s “Mass” at its opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971.
She landed and, by all accounts, nailed the role of Edith Bouvier Beale in “Grey Gardens” in Philadelphia in 2009, Frau Schmidt in “The Sound of Music” several times, and starred in “Driving Miss Daisy” at Harbor Lights Theatre. Most recently she was in “Steel Magnolias.”
“Anastasia” runs through Nov. 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House and continues on its national tour, where in another theater, the snow falls, and aristocratic couples dance, and snow falls, and the Dowager Empress and Joy Franz for a time help recreate a lost world.