Feature photo: Gerri Weagraff (Dowager Empress) and Kyla Stone (Anya), photo by Jeremy Daniel
Let’s journey to the past! The critically-acclaimed Broadway production of Anastasia is returning to Philadelphia’s Kimmel Cultural Campus from November 23th to 28th (Merriam Theater). Before we head to 1918 St. Petersburg, Russia or 1920s Paris, Gerri Weagraff- who plays the Dowager Empress in this tour of the show- talked to us about her role. Gerri is Philly-born and Delco raised (Drexel Hill); a graduate of Upper Darby High School and the University of Delaware! She looks forward to being in her home state for Thanksgiving as Anastasia will certainly wow audiences in Philadelphia! The show is back at the Kimmel Campus by popular demand actually and Gerri tells us why she thinks that is! Read below to find out more about her stage credits over the years, why she wanted to be a part of Anastasia, and her own family traditions!
Tickets to Anastasia are available now on the Kimmel Cultural Campus website here.
Q: You were born in Philly- what neighborhood did you grow up in?
A: I’m a Delco girl! Until I was 6 years old, I lived in the Stonehurst section of Upper Darby. Then before I started first grade, we moved to Alexander Avenue in Drexel Hill. I went to Aronimink Elementary, then Drexel Hill Junior High, and Upper Darby High School. My parents still lived in the Drexel Hill house until 2016.
Q: Of the many productions you have been a part of, who were some of your most favorite characters to play?
A: In my younger years, Adelaide from Guys and Dolls was one of my favorites. But the majority of my most favorite roles have come after I turned 50 years old. Among them- Phyllis in Follies, Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, Hannah in The Spitfire Grill, and Mama Murphy in Bright Star.
Q: How did you become involved in the Anastasia tour? Why did you want to be in this show?
A: My connection to the stage musical Anastasia goes back to 2017 when it premiered on Broadway. My son’s girlfriend (now fiancée) was in the original Broadway cast of Anastasia, and I saw the show in September of that year and absolutely loved it. The Dowager Empress character made a huge impression on me. There aren’t many musical theater roles this rich and this pivotal for women in their 60s and 70s. I distinctly remember saying out loud that I would love to play the Dowager some day. I felt it was a role very much suited to my type. When I saw a casting call in March 2020 for the tour, I immediately requested an audition. My first audition was March 11, 2020, just a few days before the pandemic shutdown. I submitted a videotaped callback on March 18, 2020, then the process was put on hold for more than a year due to Covid. After things resumed in April of this year, I was asked to attend a final callback in early July, and I received the offer to play the Dowager Empress a few weeks after that.
Q: Tell us a bit about the Dowager Empress. What do you love about her?
A: I love that at her core, the Dowager Empress is a very loving and caring person. She adores her “favorite” granddaughter Anastasia as well as her son and other grandchildren. Although in Act II she appears cold and angry, it’s really that she has become hardened and bitter after 10 years of enduring the heartbreak of a never-ending string of imposters trying to deceive her. She is tormented by conflicting forces: one moment, she wants to hold onto a shred of hope that Anastasia might be alive; the next moment, she is telling herself that she must stop believing that she will ever find Anastasia. I love exploring the complexity of the emotions. In addition, the Dowager has a scene with Anya that our director calls the “11 o’clock number”. That term is usually applied to a cathartic, show stopping song. But in our show, it’s the scene where the Dowager recognizes Anya as Anastasia. Performing this scene with the amazing Kyla Stone is easily one of the most rewarding theatrical experiences of my nearly 50 years as an actor!
Q: Kyla Stone is making her national tour debut as Anya! What advice did you offer her as she embarked on this journey in her career?
A: My advice for Kyla and the rest of our cast members who are also making their national tour debut is to stay grateful, gracious, and humble. A few of my favorite mantras are to always try to leave a good impression and don’t sweat the small stuff. Sure, there will be things to grumble about, but it’s important to remember how fortunate we are. Being given the opportunity to tour is such a gift. We get to see cities that we might never have had the chance to visit, we get to perform in gorgeous theaters, and we get to share this beautiful story with appreciative audiences all around the country.
Q: Anastasia is back in Philly by popular demand. Why do you think it was so well received?
A: The 1997 animated movie Anastasia, which in part inspired the stage musical, had a tremendous following around the world, many of whom are now huge fans of the musical. There’s even an endearing name for them: Fanastasias. I think there are a variety of reasons for the appeal of the show. It is a feast for the senses: it astounds audiences with gorgeous music, dazzling costumes, big dance numbers, lovable characters, and movie-like, stunning video projections portraying everything from the fiery violence of the Russian revolution to escaping on a fast-moving train to zooming up the Eiffel Tower. It is also a show that has something for everyone, and for all ages: adventure, intrigue, mystery, comedy, romance, set against a historical backdrop and inspired by a legend that has fascinated the world for 100 years. The storyline of a princess who doesn’t know she’s a princess is very attractive. Plus, I think people are drawn to Anya because she is a strong, brave, determined, ethical, spunky, young woman. The show touches the human heart; it is truly a celebration of courage, love, and reconciliation – a journey that unfolds with hope and joy.
Q: What’s your favorite musical number from the show?
A: I really do love every musical number in the show! But to be more specific, I love “In a Crowd of Thousands” for its beautiful melody and the way the lyrics reveal the connection that Anya and Dmitry had when they were children. “Stay, I Pray You” is another favorite of mine as a profound anthem portraying the heartache and hope felt by those fleeing their homeland. I adore “Countess and the Common Man” because it’s so funny! I love “Journey to the Past” as Anya expresses her desires and dreams (and it’s a breathtaking way to end Act I), and “Once Upon a December” holds a special place in my heart because it’s the tune my character and little Anastasia sing together when the curtain rises – it’s the lullaby that becomes a recurring motif representing memories and identity.
Q: In the musical, the Dowager Empress gives her young granddaughter, Anastasia (Anya), a music box. Do you have any special keepsakes that were given to you as a child?
A: When my mother was 11 years old, she was given a red hardcover book of brain teasers, word games, and puzzles. It was called, “The Jumbo Fun Book,” copyright 1941. When I turned 11, my mom gave the book to me. I loved going through the book, figuring out the puzzles, and I even wrote a message inside of it to my future child, because I fully intended to pass the book along. Sure enough, on my daughter’s 11th birthday, I gave her the book, which she still has! My daughter is due to have her first child very shortly, and I suspect that when her baby turns 11, the book will pass to the next generation.
Q: You’ll be close to home for Thanksgiving- what are your plans? Do you have any unique family traditions?
A: When I saw that we were going to be performing in Philadelphia during Thanksgiving week, I was so excited! In years past, I would gather with large groupings of relatives in the Philly area, with everybody bringing a dish to contribute. My most recent Thanksgivings have been spent with some or all of my immediate family: my husband Paul, daughter Rebekah, son-in-law Jim, son Jordan, and daughter-in-law-to-be Sissy. Since I’ll be in Philadelphia, the six of us will be able to get together for turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day, an opportunity for which I am extremely thankful!