Delaware's Gerri Weagraff dowager empress Anastasia

‘Anastasia’s’ empress may look familiar to Del. audiences

Betsy PriceCulture, Headlines

Delaware's Gerri Weagraff dowager empress Anastasia

Delaware’s Gerri Weagraff, right, plays the dowager empress in ‘Anastasia,’ which opens at the Playhouse Feb. 9.

After 50 years of acting in and near Delaware, Gerri Weagraff finally is going to perform at the Playhouse on Rodney Square.

She will play the Russian dowager empress living in exile when the national tour of the Broadway musical “Anastasia” hits Wilmington Feb. 9-12.

“I’m just really, really excited about coming to perform at the Playhouse in Wilmington,” said Weagraff. “I’ve seen many shows at the Playhouse, but just knowing this is my home and friends are going to come see me when I’m there … I’ve been thinking about it now for like a couple of months and I am so, so excited to be there.”

“Anastasia” is the story of a young orphaned Russian woman named Anya trying to find her family. Conmen convince her she may be Anastasia, the last surviving member of the executed Tsar Nicolas II’s family. The grifters convince Anya to head to Paris to try her luck with the exiled empress.

Inspired by the 1997 animated film, the musical keeps six of its songs but jettisons the character of villain Rasputin while adding a new villain and more than a dozen new songs.

Weagraff’s role as empress is a meaty one. The actress who played that role on Broadway was nominated for a Tony Award.

The character only appears briefly in Act I, which takes place in Russia, but she is onstage for much of Act II, which takes place in Paris in the 1920s.

This is Weagraff’s second national tour. She spent 2010-12 touring in “Fiddler on the Roof,” a musical that keeps reappearing in her own life.

gerriweagraffIt was the first show in which she performed. Encouraged by her Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, parents, who also acted in community theater, Weagraff was 16 when she auditioned and got the role of Hodel — the middle daughter in the fiddler’s family.

“I instantly fell in love with musical theater and it became my lifelong passion,” she said.

She always considered herself a bit of an introvert, but her parents kept telling her that when the spotlight hit, you come out of your shell and become a different person.

“There’s an adrenaline rush that goes with it,” she said. “There is like an incredible satisfaction. There’s the camaraderie you get working with other cast members. There’s the creative aspect of it,” she said. “I absolutely love it and kind of can’t think of life without it.”

And she hasn’t had to.

“Fiddler” is also the show in which she was performing when she met her future husband, Paul Weagraff, who recently retired as the director of  the Delaware Division of the Arts.

In that performance, Gerri played Tzeitel, the oldest daughter in the family, while Paul played her beau, Motel.

“If it hadn’t been for theater, I wouldn’t have met Paul. I wouldn’t have had my kids,” Gerri said. “It has truly truly shaped my life.”

A different major

Gerri didn’t, however, seek a theater degree in college. Instead, she majored in Spanish, planning to be a high school teacher, at the University of Delaware.

Then she realized she didn’t want to be stuck in a classroom and became a radio newscaster at the Jersey shore. Her schedule wouldn’t allow her to seek acting jobs.

After she took a job at WILM in Wilmington in 1985, she started auditioning again and in 1986 won a role at the Players Club of Swarthmore in “Fiddler.” That’s where she met Paul Weagraff. They were engaged a year later and married in 1988.

When their first child, Rebekah, arrived, Gerri moved into the nonprofit world, helping companies find child care for employees. At the time, women were flooding into the job market.

Both Rebekah and the Weagraff’s son, Jordan, followed them onto the stage. At one point, they were all cast in a production of The Brandywiners’ “The Music Man.”

Rebekah went on to get a degree in anthropology from Ithaca College, while Jordan earned a bachelor’s in Musical Theater from Syracuse University. Jordan went on to meet his fiancee, Sissy Bell. They’ll marry in March.

Gerri had been interested in doing a national tour for quite a while when Jordan was headed off to college. With both kids in college, she applied to join the 2010 national tour of “Fiddler.”

The family was at Walt Disney World on vacation before Rebekah was headed back to Ithaca for her senior  year and Jordan for his freshman year when Gerri got a call asking her to come to New York to audition.

“I was like oh my gosh, help me prepare for this,” Gerri said. “I remember standing in lines to go on rides while I was looking at the lines and the songs.”

She auditioned and was called back two days later.

national tour 'Anastasia'

The national tour of ‘Anastasia’ stops at the Playhouse on Rodney Square Feb. 9-12.

Crickets, then chaos

Then, crickets.

Until the day they were moving Jordan into his freshman dorm, a Wednesday, when the company called and offered her a role. They started rehearsing the next Monday, Gerri was told.

“We were leaving Syracuse on that Friday. I had to quit a job. I had to figure out where in the world I was going to live while I was rehearsing  and I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was not going to be starting an empty nester life with Paul,” she said. “That’s how I got started.”

She played a mom the first year, understudying four roles. The second year, she played Golde, Tevye’s wife.

When Gerri returned, she was in her mid-50s and decided instead of going back into the business world, she would try to make a living acting regionally, and she has.

Gerri had seen “Anastasia” on Broadway and thought she would love to do that show and play the empress. When she saw an ad for the second national tour, she auditioned in early March 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

In April 2021, the company called her back and said they hoped to launch another tour that fall. She auditioned online and was called back for an in-person audition before being offered the role of the dowager empress.

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She’s been in so many shows that she’s often experienced graduating from the young ingenue to the mom figure and then to the grandmom role.

“I remember the first time I ever got cast as a mother,” she said. “It shocked me, and I was a mother at the time, of little kids. I’ll never forget I was 41 years old.”

It was 1998 and the show was “State Fair” at Candlelight Dinner Theatre.

“Up until that point, I had been playing young women and here I get cast as the mother of teenagers,” she said.

Now she looks back on all those crossroads with fond memories.

“I just love the different layers and life experiences I can bring as an actor but also the life experiences of these older characters,” she said. “These roles have so much depth.”

When “Anastasia” plays Wilmington, it will be the tour’s 100th city since a Georgia preview on Oct. 15, 2021. The show stays in one place for different lengths of times, ranging from one night to two weeks.

Gerri tries to see the cities they visit for multiple night stays.

“I’ll go to museums. I’ll walk along rivers. I’ll walk across bridges. I’ll go experience local coffee shops,” she said. “It’s really an incredible experience to get to see the country and see cities I never would have seen before.”

If you go to ‘Anastasia’

WHAT: “Anastasia,” recommended for audiences age 7 and up

WHERE: The Playhouse on Rodney Square, 1007 N. Market St., Wilmington

TICKETS: $40 to $107;; 302.888.0200.

PEDIGREE: Book by Terrence McNally; score by “Ragtime’s” Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)

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