To the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, aka Kyla Stone:
My apologies, your Royal Highness, but even though I’m sure you’re used to a starring role in any reviews of the national tour of the Broadway musical bearing your name, you’re out of luck today. Same goes for Dmitry and Vlad (Sam McLellan and Bryan Seastrom), those lovable Russian scamps who take in the destitute Anya and coach her toward a fairy-tale ending; the two of you will also get scant attention as well.
That’s because this is William Aaron Bishop’s review.
Sometimes parochialism has to take precedence. Bishop is one of Fresno’s own. He was a familiar face on the local theater scene for years. Just last summer, Bishop was entertaining audiences in a park as part of Selma Arts Center’s “Head Over Heels.” He played the pivotal role of J.D. in one of my all-time favorites (“Heathers the Musical”), not once but twice – for Selma Arts Center and Fresno State. As a stand-out StageWorks Fresno performer, he had great showings in such productions as “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Now he’s in the ensemble of “Anastasia,” where he also understudies several important roles.
On Tuesday evening, which was opening night of the national “Anastasia” tour in Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre, Bishop got to cover one of those roles – Gleb, the villain of the piece. The character is the stern deputy commissioner given the task of tracking Anya – who could very well be the missing Anastasia, saved from the bottom of a pile of firing-squad victims – in Paris and killing her if she is, indeed, the only surviving member of the Romanov royal family.
I’m not sure if Bishop’s performance as Gleb was planned because Fresno is his hometown, or if his understudy stint was because of illness or vacation. But imagine the delight of the Bishop fans in the audience (and there were many) when he strode onto the stage in the crisp, authoritarian garb of Gleb, ready to add some menace to the fairy-tale plot. It’s a powerhouse role (the acclaimed Ramin Karimloo originated it on Broadway) filled with deep, stirring solos, a motive of pursuit and a heavy dose of Leninist angst; think of Inspector Javert with a hammer and sickle.
And what an impression Bishop made. Standing stern and posture-perfect with slicked-back hair, his curls banished to a Soviet gulag, he delivered an imposing, menacing portrait of bureaucratic-cool efficiency. Yet he was more than just a simple villain. In a stirring rendition of the song “The Neva Flows,” Bishop offered a glimpse of his character’s internal conflict. Would he have been able to pull the trigger on the royal family if he’d been asked? He isn’t sure.
Just as impressive: Bishop’s vocals. My memories are of him with a lighter, tenor-reaching voice, but as Gleb, he offered a booming, resonant baritone that commanded the Saroyan like a mechanized Soviet brigade. Flawless in his diction and inexhaustible in his delivery, he deftly fulfilled the musical purpose of his role: to offer texture and balance to the Disney-like, overly bright vocal colors of the other leading characters.
I was impressed.
A few notes about the rest of the show:
• The tour is a smart, polished production. I loved the sophistication of the projections and lighting design, and the way that the projected images were integrated with physical touches (“real” curtains and actual scenic frames) to offer a startling sense of texture and perspective. (There were moments when high-resolution “digital” curtains and real ones worked in tandem, which was actually a little mind-blowing.) We’re used to opulent sets on Broadway itself, but it’s tough to offer that same elaborate feel on the road; technology such as this really equals the visual playing field for regional productions.
• It’s weird – trippy, even – to watch this show on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. Just saying.
• Terrence McNally’s book for the musical? It’s so-so. I don’t think it ever truly reconciles the horrific violence required to set the storyline in motion with the more boppy, ain’t-Petersburg-and-Paris-great uplift of the lighter parts of the show Same with the music of composer/lyricists Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. It’s serviceable, but not one of their best.
• The performances: Bishop is surrounded by lots of talent. Stone’s vocals are impressive, and McLellan’s take on Dmitry grew on me, particularly in the second act. Seastrom (along with Madeline Raube, as a lonely countess) offers some choice comic moments.
Still, this is what I remember most from the opening-night performance: Bishop stepping forward to take his bows from the same stage that served as his childhood exposure to musical theater. Who knows? There may have been some kid in the audience who will be doing the same thing in 10 years. I strive not to stray into boosterism, but this is a time to relish the hometown boy. Sometimes you just have to put on your Fresno hat and say, “Thanks, Will. We’re proud of you.”