Offhand, I can't think of a lot of musicals that end with the heroine hurling herself under the wheels of an oncoming train, but in an era of endless esthetic progress, I suppose it was inevitable.
I'm not sure Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" needed to be turned into a musical, but I am certain that the current version is a perfect lesson in how not to do it.
This is apparent the second the show begins, with a drum roll, an anemic trumpet and two busy, busy pianos. Only a solo cello adds an infrequent element of passion. You can't project the rich textures of a 19th-century Russian novel with forces unsuitable for a production of "The Music Man" in Asbury Park.
Nor is there any point to doing melodrama in an informal theater-in-the-round. If ever a story cried out for a proscenium, velvet curtains and sumptuous decor, this is it. Instead, furniture is shlepped in and out over a painted floor, in the center of which is the Imperial eagle surrounded by swirls of garish colors my grandfather would have declared farpatschkit. (Note that I have used a Yiddish world for "messy" derived from Russian rather than the equally apt ungepatschkit, which is derived from German.)
Neither librettist Peter Kellogg nor composer Daniel Levine seem concerned about the Russian-ness of the material. The book and lyrics painstakingly flatten all the subtleties of the book to blandness and cliche. The score has an occasional melodic surge and there is some skillful ensemble writing, but the whole thing smacks of what people do in workshops where they are required to turn something into a musical, which they do with plodding competence and no particular inspiration.
Given the relentless two-dimensionality of the material, there is not much the actors can do. Jerry Lanning, who sings beautifully, manages to make Anna's brother believable and authentically Russian. John Cunningham is powerful as Anna's unsympathetic husband. Levin, one of Tolstoy's richest characters, has been reduced to a '40s musical-comedy ingenue, but Gregg Edelman plays it splendidly, especially in a boffo solo. (Note: Nothing in Tolstoy should be boffo.)
Scott Wentworth is not a particularly dashing Vronsky, but he sings well. As Anna, Ann Crumb is very actressy, her singing mannered. You're supposed to be horrified when Anna throws herself in front of the train. I found myself awaiting the moment eagerly. My only regret was that she didn't toss the whiny Erik Houston Saari, who plays her son, in ahead of her.
Maybe some czarist composer could have turned "Karenina" into an opera. They were smart enough not even to try.
Leo, you can rest easy. You can stop spinning; well, slow the spinning down, anyway. Hey, the musical crafted at the Circle in the Square from your "Anna Karenina" - that lighthearted little novel - isn't at all bad. In fact, it's pretty good. Oh hell, let's just come out and say that I liked a lot of it a lot. If I knew how to sing, I would have come away singing.
Of course poor Anna didn't come away singing from under that railroad train. But there was a whole world of life and love and social taboo and feminine entrapment that led with terrible inevitability to those train tracks, and a couple of talented fellows named Peter Kellogg (book and lyrics) and Daniel Levine (music) not only dug the essence of all this out of Tolstoy's masterpiece but have strung it together with wit, color and coherence.
Nor do I remember ever seeing anything on the whole better directed by Theodore Mann, founding honcho of the Circle. The choreography of the balls, mazurkas, etc., by Patricia Birch is to suit, with a small orchestra half-hidden just beyond the horizon.
Poor Anna is not the strongest point of this show, though Ann Crumb tries very, very hard in a role that is not, I'm afraid, altogether congenial to her. There are other strong points aplenty.
Anna's husband, Nicolai Karenin - that bureaucratic pompous ass, so declared to his face by Anna's lover Vronsky - is superbly embodied in flesh and spirit, right down to the muttonchops, by John Cunningham, who through all the iciness somehow renders pitiable the fact that the man's chief problem in discovering the infidelity of his wife is "how inconvenient" it is, what will people think.
Though the Vronsky of the musical is considerably more sensitive than my distant memory of the cavalryman in the novel who breaks his horse's back (as a woman's back might break) without a second thought, Scott Wentworth in other respects has all the flair and chutzpah of a Tsar's hussar with a moral code that goes like this: "If I lose money to a cardshark, I must pay him at once, but I can put off my tailor indefinitely. I can lie to a woman, but not to a man" - until he meets Anna Karenina, that is, and tosses aside, without a second's thought, the young Kitty who adores him.
Which brings us to the household of Anna's brother, Prince Stephen Oblonsky, and his wife's sister, that same young Kitty, and Kitty's other admirer, the clod-kicking innovative landowner Constantine Levin. Here, in the subplot and sub-subplot, the marital woes of "Stiva" and the slow-unfolding romance of Kitty and Levin, is where the musical gets every opportunity to be a musical; to become, in scene after scene - contrasting with Anna's deepening plight - absolutely delightful. That Stiva will be forgiven his dalliances is partly because he's not a woman, but mostly because he's Jerry Lanning, a richly amusing actor.
And in song after song - be it noted, of a quite contemporary sensibility - the shifting lines are drawn between all the parties to these entanglements, and then more yet between Levin and Kitty as the schnook tries to fumble and stumble his way into her heart.
Gregg Edelman, late of "City of Angels," has a splendid voice - well, they all do - and the most charming-disarming "ineptness" you ever saw. Of course, as I remember Levin - a stand-in for Tolstoy - and his land reforms and mystic philosophy, it's half the novel, here all compacted into one 30-second scene with hoe-in-hand peasants. And the rest of the social fabric of 1875 Russia consists here of a few wheelbarrows and babushkas. Well, whaddya want, egg in your borscht?
Melissa Errico, fresh out of Yale, is our Kitty, and this truly enchanting young woman lights up the night, whether envisioning herself as a spinster of, oh, 21, shouting an: "I do" into the ear trumpet of some old goat who will drop dead with the thrill, or piercing her way through Levin's absurd marriage-proposal-by-blackboard with a: "Yes - I said Yes."
Okay: Ann Crumb. She has the voice, and she cuts a fine figure in a red or black velvet gown. But I feel there's something straitlaced, something schoolmarmish, at the core; something narrow, if you will. The Anna Karenina in my head is seductive, pliant, fluid, maternal, eternal - straitlaced, yes, in the sense of a bomb waiting to go off that does go off, with Vronsky. And not just because of Garbo, which is unfair to anybody thereafter. Because of the book, and of me. By the way, a piece of trivia. Guess who was the Kitty of that 1935 movie. Maureen O'Sullivan.
Every unhappy musical is unhappy in its own way, but no musical is more unfortunate than "Anna Karenina," the travesty of Tolstoy's novel that opened last night at Circle in the Square Theater. This show, the handiwork of Peter Kellogg and Daniel Levine, represents a series of misperceptions and errors in judgment, all of which are compounded in Theodore Mann's production.
The novel is, of course, one of the greatest of tragic love stories and also the most lucid presentation of Tolstoy's ideas on morality and the future of his society. The least to be expected from an adaptation would be for it to capture the passion of Anna, who abandons her marriage and her code of ethics for the sake of her romance with Count Vronsky. The musical "Anna Karenina" reduces the story to the proportions of a historical romance: Barbara Cartland meets Leo Tolstoy, and the band plays on.
In his production, Mr. Mann has undercut the show through a flagrant stroke of miscasting. Ann Crumb, who played the fickle actress in "Aspects of Love," is a continent away from Anna in temperament, bearing and appearance. As Vladimir Nabokov said, Anna "is a woman with a full, compact, important moral nature: everything about her character is significant and important." Anna is stunning; when she enters a room, all eyes are upon her. With Ms. Crumb in the musical, Anna is no longer the center of attention. There is a residual coarseness in her performance, beginning with her stridency and her forced laughter. The M-G-M movie version was unsuccessful in capturing the novel but it had Greta Garbo, who was an electrifying presence in the title role.
The failure of the musical is deeper than the actress or the characterization. It is a question of tone, which is much closer to Broadway show business than to Czarist Russia. The adaptation skims the surface of the story and ignores the texture, dropping in songs sometimes at inappropriate moments. The creators of "Annie" had far greater respect for their comic strip orphan than Mr. Kellogg and Mr. Levine have for Anna.
In his reshaping of the novel, Mr. Kellogg freely juggles events, placing Vronsky on the train with Anna from St. Petersburg and on the platform at the end of the play when she meets her doom. This approach invents drama when none is needed. The adaptation is most damaging in the rewriting of two major characters. Levin, one of the noblest of Tolstoy's creations and a close approximation of the author himself, is turned into a musical comedy second lead, a goodnatured bumbler. Kitty, his eternal love, becomes the ingenue, a pert and silly flirt who can't say yes so she says no. When they finally confess their love for each other, one of the most powerful scenes in the book is reduced to a joke.
The most that can be said for Mr. Levine's score is that it has several pretty tunes, but in harness with Mr. Kellogg's lyrics they often seem like numbers from a "Forbidden Sondheim," as in the opening song, "On a Train," which enumerates the travails of train travel ("struggling with the luggage, rattling the teacups"). As the show wanders among musicals past, it strives to emulate "A Little Night Music," whose bittersweet air is the opposite of the heartbreaking intensity of "Anna Karenina." There is a four-part harmony that sounds as if the characters are about to embark on a weekend in the country.
It is not until the end of the long first act that Anna and Vronsky flee from Russia. This leaves so much plot for the second act that the musical is forced to resort to a version of the movie montage effect. It awkwardly crosscuts between Anna's lonely son in St. Petersburg and the runaway couple in Italy.
Russian atmosphere is left to the costumes and to occasional mazurkas choreographed by Patricia Birch. The mannerisms are decidedly American, especially so in the case of Ms. Crumb. Behind his thick whiskers, John Cunningham is a glum Karenin, for good reason. Almost every time he walks into a room, he catches his wife and her lover in a compromising situation. With more help from the script, Scott Wentworth might be a dashing Vronsky, but Gregg Edelman and Melissa Errico (as Levin and Kitty) seem to have wandered in from a different musical. Alone among the principals, Jerry Lanning (as Anna's well-meaning brother) approaches the complexity of his character.
The Circle in the Square's open stage is not a conducive environment for musicals, a fact that is underscored by this unwieldy show and its constantly shifting landscape. In James Morgan's setting, the floor is lacquered in imitation of a patterned carpet. In modern musical fashion, the designer is overly reliant on chairs for scenery. As in "Grand Hotel," people come, people go, people move chairs -- and in this case they also move trains.
Although "Anna Karenina" is certainly an unlikely choice for musicalization, "Les Miserables" demonstrated that musical theater is not necessarily antithetical to great literature. Erwin Piscator's dramatization of "War and Peace" proved that even a Tolstoy epic could be distilled on stage. But "Anna Karenina" is far beyond the grasp of the team at Circle in the Square. Remember the novel, remember Garbo, forget the musical.
All hit musicals are like one another; each flop flops in its own way.
The creators of "Anna Karenina" prove that a musical adaptation of the Tolstoy novel isn't as far-fetched an idea as it might at first appear, and that is no mean feat. There are a few moments-- very few, to be sure--when a glimmer of character struggles through the overwhelming trivialization.
What goes wrong, goes wrong immediately. The opening, set at the St. Petersburg train station, reveals Daniel Levine to be a composer of unyielding mundaneness.
None of the show's melodies lodges in the memory, and when the music isn't being obvious, which is most of the time, it does battle with the action. Moreover, Peter Matz's sickly orchestrations are executed--and one does mean executed--by the most incompetent pit orchestra in recent experience.
Peter Kellogg's writing is equally infelicitous. The show begins, for example , with the chorus singing such choo-choo banalities as "When you wake up/You'resomeplace totally new." The line "On a train/Slicing through the countryside" seems particularly inapt, coming as it does just after an inattentive guard has been run over.
Similarly, when Anna (Ann Crumb) finally gives up on her indifferent husband, Nicolai (John Cunningham), she arrives late at the home of Count Vronsky (Scott Wentworth) with only one purpose. "I'm sorry, I'm not very good at this," she blurts out, asking, "Am I being indiscreet?" as they fall to the floor in a tumble of swelling music and heaving chests.
So nuance isn't a strong point here. Tolstoy's eccentric stand-in, Levin (Gregg Edelman), has been reduced to a comic figure, sort of Motel the Tailor on loan from "Fiddler on the Roof" and called in from Anatevka for a lark.
His wooing of the alternately bright and petulant Kitty (Melissa Errico) is reduced to a whimsical subplot, though Edelman and Errico rightfully walk off with the show, even if Levin's big Act 2 number, "That Will Serve Her Right," sounds like an Allen Sherman ditty.
Aside from that, what goes right comes far more intermittently. "In a Room," a quartet for the four would-be lovers, is ersatz Sondheim out of "A Little Night Music"; though the characters spend too much time talking about talking, it's sung with effective polish.
Wentworth, Crumb and Cunningham, good singers all, do what they can with mediocre material and a story that fights the form.
Also good is Jerry Lanning, as Anna's brother, Stiva. They are paired on "There's More to Life Than Love," he announcing that love is all and she demurring, in the closest thing to a standard show tune in the score.
Most of Theodore Mann's staging consists of shuffling the company on, off and around the circular space, which designer James Morgan has cut off at one end by four columns in front of three doors that serve multiple purposes well.
Patricia Birch's dance sequences are performed without much elan. Carrie Robbins' costumes are good period clothes, and Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting is generally moody and effective.
Even with its share of howlers, "Anna Karenina" the musical is bad, but it isn't "Nick & Nora" bad, or even "Rockabye Hamlet" bad.
Compressed, condensed and redrawn in primary colors, this is comic-strip Tolstoy, as if the complex, tragic tale were being told through headlines in the New York Post. Sure, it can be done. Question is, to what purpose?