After two years on Broadway, the evocative and entertaining musical “Anastasia” is now touring the United States, to be followed by stops in major European cities and Japan. Indicative of its lasting, universal appeal is the public’s love of the improbable tale of the amnesiac Anya, who may just possibly be Anastasia, the long lost, sole-surviving daughter of the doomed Romanov rulers of Russia. The fairytale that Anastasia escaped execution seems to endure forever, notwithstanding concrete DNA evidence finalized in 2009 confirming that Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children, including Anastasia, were executed in Russia on July 17, 1918.
The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna’s survival is the most robust feature of this middling-to-better musical, despite its able direction by Darko Tresnjak (Tony Award-winner for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”), elegant choreography by Peggy Hickey, lavish, creative sets (Alexander Dodge, Scenic Design) and costumes (Linda Cho, Costume Design) as well as some admirable acting.
The renowned Terrence McNally (Tony Award-winner for the “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime” books) cobbled together a reasonably cohesive plotline from pieces of two previous “Anastasia” films, the animated 1997 cute as a button, tween-favorite (voiced by Meg Ryan and John Cusack), which blamed a cartoonishly wicked Rasputin for the Romanov deaths, and, the 1956 drama starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for her performance.
A gorgeously staged prologue introduces the 1906 lavish life of the Tsars, where the young Anastasia sadly bids farewell to her doting grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Joy Franz) who is leaving for Paris. The poignant interlude is followed by the off-stage execution of the Romanovs some 12 years later, symbolized by lots of noise and swirling red fabrics.
Then the scene shifts again to a drab communist-controlled 1927 St. Petersburg. Two con men, Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and the older Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), are working a scheme to gain the reward that the Dowager Empress Maria has offered to anyone who can bring a surviving Anastasia to Paris. The two men plan to pass off an impostor and find Anya, a street sweeper (Lila Coogan), who coincidently has lost her memory. In a musical number quite reminiscent of “The Rain in Spain” from “My Fair Lady,” they tutor her, but independently, Anastasia has eerie recollections of royal life.
An unnecessary subplot that ultimately dribbles away involves a Javert-like Communist, Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), who believes that Anastasia is alive, but he intends to kill her. His impressive, strong voice, however, is a welcome contribution to the production.
Anya, Dmitry, Vlad, and Gleb find their way to an exciting and colorful Paris, full of fab 1920s costumes and Charleston dancers, with realistic views of Paris projected on an enormous background screen (Aaron Rhyne, Projection Design). Vlad has an old flame, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly), who attends to the aged Dowager Empress. The two sing a funny duet, easily the best numbers of the evening, although it’s not unlike “I Remember it Well” from “Gigi.” Finally, Anastasia and the Dowager Empress meet, and the rest may or may not be history. No spoilers here.
With its undistinguished but pleasing music and lyrics, “Anastasia” is a romantic, epic production that retells an entrancing and charming fairy tale.
Emily S. Mendel
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