SevenVenues is delighted to announce the return of their Broadway In Norfolk Series at Chrysler Hall and what a better way to start then with the critically acclaimed Broadway production of “Anastasia” this weekend November 19th-21st. For more info go to https://www.sevenvenues.com/events/detail/anastasia
The Broadway In Norfolk Series continues with the Tony Award-winning musical comedy “Hairspray”, the return of Tony, Grammy and Olivier Award-winning hit musical “Jersey Boys”, the immersive, concert-style theater show “The Simon & Garfunkel Story” and the season closes with the return of “Wicked” in September 2022, rescheduled from the 2019-20 season. Also rescheduled is “Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” that will play in February 2022. Subscriptions are on sale now at https://www.sevenvenues.com/events/broadway-in-norfolk
Yiorgo: I was delighted to talk recently with Gerri Weagraff, who plays Dowager Empress in “Anastasia”. Gerri, why should people come and see Anastasia? What will they experience and see?
Gerri Weagraff: This show is a feast for the scenes. It is set in the historical backdrop of the Romanov family, the story of the legend of Anastasia Romanov. It is a musical that was in part inspired by an extremely popular 1997 animated film and it has something for everyone young and old. It astounds the audience with gorgeous music, dazzling costumes, big dance numbers, lovable characters and it features these movie-like video projections that are just incredible to see. It makes the audience feel like they can see everything from: the fiery violence of the Russian Revolution, to escaping on a train, to Paris in the 1920’s, the Eiffel Tower, fireworks and so much more. It has adventure, mystery, comedy, romance, how could you not love it? Everybody will absolutely fall in love with this show.
Also, coming back after the pandemic, “Anastasia”’s theme of hope and how we all want to get back to normalcy, that aspect of it is just so meaningful. The show itself and the storyline has so much hope in it as well. You can look at some of the lyrics that
Anastasia sings like: ‘Don’t give up hope’, ‘Come what May’, ‘One step at a time’ and ‘One hope the another’.
Y: What is “Anastasia” about?
GW: At its heart, “Anastasia” is a story about a woman who is searching for her identity.
She has amnesia and is experiencing flashes of bits and pieces of her memory while she feels the need to search for someone in Paris in the 1920’s. Meanwhile, there are these two lovable con men who want to find a girl, give her enough information to pass her off as Anastasia Romanov to the surviving grandmother, because the grandmother is offering a reward for Anastasia’s return. The entire Romanov family is executed in the Russian revolution in 1918, so there is mystery, there is a Russian officer who is pursuing Anastasia because his father was one of the officers at the execution and he is trying to finish the deed of his father. The grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who I play, is hoping that Anastasia may have escaped and is still alive.
Y: Can you talk about your audition process?
GW: I have a fascinating connection to this stage musical. In 2017, “Anastasia” premiered on Broadway. Sissy Bell, my son’s girlfriend at the time, was in the original production of “Anastasia”. They met in 2014 in the national tour of Elf and they have been together ever since, he proposed to her this year and she is her fiancé. So “Anastasia” is a big part of our lives. We saw “Anastasia” in September of that year. I loved the show so much and the role of the Dowager Empress. I have the distinct memory of saying out loud, ‘I would love to play that grandmother role someday’. I felt it was so suited to my type.
I saw a casting call in March, for the second National Tour right before the pandemic shut everything down. It was March 11th, 2020 and everything was happening in person. I requested an audition, went up to New York, did the audition and then everything shut down. On my callback, the casting company asked me on March 18th to submit by video two scenes and two songs of the Dowager Empress. The process was then put on hold for more than a year and I put it out of my mind. In April of this year, they reached out again, the process started, I went to a final callback in early July and two weeks later I got the offer. My dream came true.
Y: The National Tour just started October 19th. What was that process like and what was opening night like for you?
GW: We started rehearsing September 20th at a studio, no costumes or sets, in New York City for two weeks. It was exciting. We worked very closely with our tour Director Sarah Hartman, with Director Darko Tresnjak who directed “Anastasia” on Broadway, with our music supervisor Tom Murray who was with “Anastasia” on Broadway. We also used the choreography from Broadway. We are using the Broadway’s team vision.
Also, we had the composer of the music, Stephen Flaherty, come to one of our final rehearsals in New York City.
We then flew to Evans, Georgia for tech week and that was super exciting. We saw the video projections for the first time and jaw dropping, magnificent costumes designed by Tony award winning costume designer Linda Cho. Then we had a preview show at that theatre on October 16th. It was the first time that I had performed in front of an audience since January 2020. For a lot of us actors, it was the first time performing after the pandemic for like 19 months. It was also the first time for the audience to be in a theatre watching a full scale Broadway production live. I was in tears that preview night and the opening night as well, a few days later in Waterbury, Connecticut. It was so magical and emotional coming back after the pandemic. At these early theatres that we have been performing at, our shows have been the first show for these theatres coming back. It’s been overwhelming.
Y: And that is true for us here in Norfolk, Virginia as well. As part of the Broadway In Norfolk Series, “Anastasia” is the first show of the season for us. You know, the beauty of live performances is just that, live and something unexpected is bound to happen. Can you share a funny story?
GW: One funny story that happened a few weeks ago was with me and Kyla Stone who plays Anya/Anastasia. We have this incredible, powerful scene together in the second act. We call it the Recognition Scene. It’s a very key scene, in fact our director calls it the 11th o’clock number. It’s a term used in musicals, it’s usually a cathartic song that happens toward the end of the show, a show stopping song. This scene that we have toward the end of the second act, our director calls it our 11th o’clock number even though there is no song in it, because it is such a transforming moment.
So at the end of the scene, we embrace in this incredibly emotional moment and then immediately in the blackout, we both have to run stage right for an extremely quick costume change. It’s the moment when she gets into the iconic red dress. In the embrace, our wigs got stuck together and normally she runs ahead of me because she has four people helping her in this change. In the blackout she whispers, “We’re stuck.”
With our heads stuck to each other, we shuffled to the right and literally we were crying laughing during the quick change. If the audience saw anything, hopefully they were thinking, oh look how cute they are walking arm and arm, head to head.
Y: Where were you born and what made you fall in love with musical theatre?
GW: This is truly a theatre family story. I was born in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. I watched my parents perform in community theatre when I was growing up and I loved watching them in it. When I was 16, a couple of high school friends of mine convinced me to try out for a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof”. That’s when the bug bit me, I absolutely fell in love with musical theatre and did all the high school musicals. I didn't think I could make a career in it, so I majored and got a degree in Spanish. Eventually, I did get a Masters degree in theatre. I continued to do theatre constantly. In my college years during the summer, I did about half a dozen shows with a youth theater group called Upper Darby Summer Stage. That is where Tina Fey got her start. The founder of the Art and Theatre in Philly got his start there. Monica Horan who is married to Phil Rosenthal who created Everybody Loves Reymond got her start there. It is a nationally renowned, amazing group founded by Harry Dietzler in 1976.
I took a break from theatre. My first career was radio broadcasting. Through the 1980'sI worked in various radio stations in New Jersey and Delaware. Eventually I left broadcasting and became a Public Relations Director for 20 years for a non-profit organization.
Y: You have been in more than 100 theatrical productions and “Fiddler on the Roof” has been so pivotal in your life. Can you talk about what that play means to you?
GW: The town of Anatevka and the life there, my grandparents lived that life. I’m Jewish and my grandparents on my mom’s side were from Poland and dad’s side from Lithuania and they grew up in those types of villages. They made their way over in the 1920’s. My grandfather actually always wanted me to sing to him the song ‘Far From The Home I Love’ from “Fiddler on the Roof”.
So, in 1986 my parents had been doing some stuff with the Swarthmore Players Club in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania and I auditioned for a “Fiddler on the Roof” production. My mom got cast as Yente, I got cast as Tzeitel and this guy named Paul Weagraff as Motel. Long story short, we started dating, got married, had two kids, got both kids involved with theatre and we became known as the Von Weagraffs of Delaware. A friend of mine gave us that nickname and it has stayed with us since then. And then of course, I got cast in “Fiddler on the Roof” National Tour in 2010.
Y: When you are not touring, you have been performing at The Candlelight Theatre in Delaware for 34 years. Tell us about it.
GW: I knew about The Candlelight Theatre because my parents had taken me there when I was younger. It is a dinner theatre. In 1987, I auditioned for Oklahoma and Iended up getting the role of Laurey, the romantic lead. In 1988 we did “Fiddler on the Roof” there. I was Tzeitel and Paul who by then was my real life husband played Perchik. We eventually moved to Delaware in 1989 and purchased a house that was five minutes away from The Candlelight Theatre. We loved it there and we kept doing shows there. With our whole family, our son Jordan and our daughter Rebecca, over the course of a 10 year span, the four of us did almost 20 productions together. And that does not count the shows where we did shows together, but not the whole family at the same time. I also volunteer as their Public Relations person.
Y: What is their upcoming production?
GW: Their Holiday show runs from November 20th to December 22nd and it’s an original adaptation. It’s called “A Christmas Carol by Candlelight''. Act I is a condensed version of “A Christmas Carol” and Act II is a musical Holliday Review. People can go to Candlelighttheatredelaware.com for more info.
Y: Last question, what has been a wow, pinch me moment in your career?
GW: When I was on the National Tour of “Fiddler on the Roof” for two years, the first year of the tour we were in southern California in the LA area and one of our cast members lived in the area. Her neighbor was Dick Van Dyke. He actually came to a cast party at the cast member’s house. We sang ‘Tradition’ for him and he came to see the show when we did it. That was one of those moments of I just can’t believe that happened.
Yiorgo is an arts, entertainment and sports writer. A stage, TV and movie actor, he is also a sports entertainer, educator, motivational speaker, writer, storyteller and columnist.