The KeyBank Broadway Series touring production of ‘Anastasia’ dazzles
In 1918, as the world reeled from the tragedy that was World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution took hold in Russia. In order to gain superiority over the people Vladimir Lenin ordered his secret police to capture and execute members of the ruling Romanov family composed of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, their children (four daughters and a son), their court physician, the hand maid for the Tsarina, their footman and their chef.
In spite of the sworn testimony of those that had participated in the executions that there were no survivors, rumors began to circulate immediately that the youngest daughter, Anastasia had survived. Soon a parade of impostors made their way to Paris in order to be interviewed by the Dowager Empress (Anastasia’s Grandmother). It took modern DNA testing of a mass grave to confirm that Anastasia had indeed been killed but this evidence did nothing to slow the controversy.
This news did not stop Fox Animation Studios from releasing an animated musical, “Anastasia” in 1997 about a young Russian girl Anya who for all appearances was indeed the missing heiress. This led to the Broadway musical of the same name which opened in April of 2017 for over 800 performances before being sent out as a touring show.
While the Broadway show composed by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens was chock full of their whimsical tunes they turned to their “Ragtime” co-creator Terrence McNally to adapt the screenplay. He kept the love interest with Dmitry but got rid of the villain, Rasputin and his talking bat sidekick from the animated movie but added Gleb, a Bolshevik general sent to hunt down Anastasia.
It is 1916 as young Anastasia bids goodbye to her grandmother who is returning to Paris. Before she departs she gifts the young girl with a music box. Two years later the family is murdered and rumors that Anastasia has survived begin to circulate. Two con men, Dmitry (Jake Levy) a young man hoping to escape the communist regime and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) an ex-member of the Imperial Court concoct a scheme to train a young woman to impersonate Anastasia using knowledge taken from Vlad’s time at court.
After numerous failed secret auditions the pair finds Anya, a young woman suffering from amnesia. As her training begins in earnest it is found that she has memories of events that they have not yet covered including how to open the locked music box that Dmitry was able to procure from a street vendor for the price of two cans of beans.
Soon the trio is deep into education as Anya is taught to dance, speak fluent French, eat and drink like an aristocrat and conduct herself in a manner becoming a Russian princess which she is able to do with little prompting. In spite of their best efforts the two con-men find themselves out of money and no way of procuring train tickets for the three of them to leave Russia. Anya then reveals a diamond that the nurse from the hospital had given her before she left. Tickets are procured and the three set off for Paris. In the meantime, Gleb has been ordered to follow after them and arrest Anya and bring her back to St. Petersburg or if finding that Anya is indeed Anastasia kill her.
In a word, the touring production of “Anastasia” is nothing short of spectacular. The video projection designs by Aaron Rhyne are magical. They take us from a royal palace, to the streets of St. Petersburg, to a run down mansion interior, to a the interior of a city train station, to train ride itself, to the Eiffel Tower, to a Paris nightclub, to the Dowager Empress’ home and the Paris Opera House in all their sweeping glory. This alone is worth the price of the ticket. Add to this the costuming by Linda Cho combined with Donald Holder’s lighting design and Peter Hylenski’s taming of the Connor Palace sound system it is a feast for the eyes and ears. The show is aptly directed by Darko Tresnjak.
As for the principle players they are wonderful together. To begin with there is Lila Coogan as the feisty Anya who has a lovely singing voice. Jake Levy is perfect as Dimitry who falls in love with Anya in slow succession. One absolute delight is the second act show stopping number “The Countess and the Common Man” with Edward Staudenmayer as the fallen from grace Count Vlad and Alison Ewing as Countess Lily. The two attempt to rekindle the flame of their past illicit relationship with hilarious results.
Just as the character Anya who is searching for her past in order to find her future we have a show suffering from an identity crisis as well. Between playing fast and loose with the historic facts, the abrupt jumps between music genres and the spectacular sets and costumes it is hard to really pin down any definitive definition of what the audience shared.
What we have is the usual collection of pleasant but hardly memorable songs, a predictable story line combined with an excellent cast and spectacular stage set and video projections that add depth. In short this is a show worth venturing out into the cold and weather to see. It is indeed a very nice way to spend an evening at the theater.
The KeyBank Broadway Series touring production of “Anastasia” runs through February 23, 2020 in the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square. For tickets and information visit www.playhousesquare.org or call (216) 241-6000.