By Lee J. Green
Gerri Weagraff’s family and tradition in theatre go all the way back to her grandfather starring in Yiddish Theatre in eastern Europe during the late 19th century.
The Jewish actress, who plays Dowager Empress in the touring musical “Anastasia,” also got to do a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” years ago with her mother, husband and daughter.
”Theatre and family are so important in our lives; we been blessed to share in them,” said Weagraff, who grew up outside of Philadelphia and now lives in Wilmington, Del. “Both ‘Anastasia’ and ‘Fiddler’ have some similarities. They both take place about the same time in Russia and both are centered on family, tradition.”
Inspired by the 1950s film and 1997 animated movie, “Anastasia” debuted on Broadway in 2017. The show transports playgoers from the twilight of the Russian Empire to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920s as a brave young woman sets out to discover the mystery of her past.
The tour is coming to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, Oct. 25 to 30. It is also scheduled for the Von Braun Center in Huntsville from Nov. 11 to 13, the Ford Center in Oxford on Nov. 14, the Bologna Performing Arts Center in Cleveland, Miss., on Nov. 15, the Heymann Center in Lafayette on Nov. 17, the Strand in Shreveport on Nov. 18, the Mattie Kelly Arts Center in Niceville, Fla., on Dec. 1 and the Mitchell Center in Mobile on Dec. 2.
“There are lines in this show about home, love, family, hope,” said Weagraff. “Those themes run through the show. And we learn that family can take any shape.”
Both sets of her grandparents came from Lithuania, Poland and Romania. Weagraff’s parents loved and performed in community theatre. Her first venture in musical theatre came in a community theatre production of “Fiddler” in which a 16-year-old Weagraff played Hodel.
After graduating college, she went on to a career in radio news broadcasting and did some theatre on the side, playing Tzeitel in a Philadelphia-area production of “Fiddler” in 1985.
She and her husband, Paul, had a daughter, Rebekah, and a son, Jordan, who caught the theatre bug. “When my kids were seven and five, we were all cast in ‘The Music Man’,” said Weagraff. “From 1997 through 2017, the four of us did about 20 musical theatre productions together in the Philadelphia area.”
Jordan started at Syracuse in 2010 and through him she found out about the “Fiddler” national Broadway tour that came through Birmingham.
“I had only done regional theatre. But they needed some older actresses to play some of the characters, so on a whim, I submitted my resume and got an audition,” she said. Weagraff was cast as Golde the Matchmaker. “My husband was very supportive. He told me I had to follow my dreams.”
When she first saw the Broadway production of “Anastasia,” she was struck by the Dowager Empress character and in March 2020, she submitted her audition for the traveling Broadway national production.
Then Covid shut everything down. Everything was in limbo for just over a year when Weagraff got the call saying they would be re-starting the casting process. She got the role in July of 2021 and the tour opened last October.
“It was the first time I had been on the stage in more than two years,” said Weagraff. “That was a challenging time for all of us, especially being in limbo with the show for so long. But I think it made us stronger as actors and as people. We were so grateful to be back doing what we loved.”
She said she was so glad her family has been able to catch her on tour, and she has really been moved by the responses audiences have had toward the show.
“It’s one of the most gorgeous, moving shows I have ever been a part of or seen,” said Weagraff. “So many people loved the movies and this story appeals to all ages. Audience members were crying tears of joy after seeing it.”