Pour Disney princess movies, Nicholas and Alexandra, Dr. Zhivago, Les Miz, Annie, My Fair Lady, and An American in Paris in a mixer, hit blend, and you’ll end up with Anastasia, a historically and narratively ludicrous yet handsome and beguiling family musical.
It’s easy to see why the team that brought us the ambitious Ragtime in the 1990s—writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens—was attracted to another early 20th-century story of cultural forces colliding. And backers would be reassured about the youth market by the tale’s plucky young heroine and its rags to riches arc. Adopting source material from an animated 1997 film (itself based on a play and film from the 1950s), the creators and their superb design and costume squad make the most of a mixed triple dip of musical and visual inspirations: Tsarist Russia, Revolutionary Russia, and jazz-age Paris.
Anya (Lila Coogan), an amnesiac in Leningrad, may or may not actually be Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. She’s close enough for a duo of con men, Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), to convince her that she is and try to pass her off as such to Anastasia’s grandmother in Paris, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz). In the process, Dmitry falls in love with Anya. Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a Bolshevik general, also wrestles with feelings for her, and Vlad is reunited with an old St. Petersburg flame, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly).
This is a musical, folks, so don’t seek historical accuracy. Don’t agonize, either, over unlikely coincidences. Nor does the show’s book sweat details of Anya’s amnesia or how Anastasia might have escaped the execution of her family. The script does not reward close reading.
closes November 25, 2018
Details and tickets
Anastasia’s history has tantalizing hints that the original version included in its Parisian second act cameos by a bevy of lost-generation icons: Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, Isadora Duncan, Gertrude Stein, and Coco Chanel. I envision that draft being closer to Ragtime in its richness of historical references. It would have been an hour longer, a critical flop, a snooze for the kids, and considerably more interesting.
But the market wants what the market wants, and there’s a lot to enjoy here, including cutting-edge projections—the most sophisticated I’ve ever seen—by Aaron Rhyne that threaten to literally upstage the action.
Carefully integrated by director Darko Tresnjak with Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, that imaging escorts us to snowy St. Petersburg; the hills, bridges, and gardens of Paris; into ballrooms, palaces, and theaters; on a train ride with shifting angles; and, in an exhilarating and brilliantly timed moment, up the Eiffel Tower. It also introduces us to shifty imperial apparitions perfect for Halloween week. Tresnjak and crew take it to the limit—almost to the point where we feel like we’re watching as much a movie or an enlarged video game as we are a stage musical. But they never quite push it over the edge.
The cast is excellent dramatically and good musically, with a of couple small but persistently troubling qualifications in the vocal work. Coogan is strong and regal. She has a powerful belt, a pretty head voice, and lovely ballad tones in the lower-range. What she doesn’t yet have is full integration of those three musical registers. I felt sometimes like I was listening to several singers projecting from one body. When she belts high it can be a little grating—more Annie than Anya. And several times that belting, on its way to the conclusion of a phrase, abruptly disappeared into the almost inaudible.
Evans has a brooding intensity as Gleb and strong vocals low and in falsetto. Unfortunately, his numbers often end on a sustained high dominant note, where he strains and warps pitch. I know that, like Coogan’s phrasing problem, that sounds like a niggling complaint, but when it happens several times it becomes a real irritant.
Brower’s Dmitry is a charming leading man. Staudenmayer gets his Lerner and Loewe on in the My Fair Lady-ish “Learn to Do It” and his scenes with Kelly, as Lily, are uproarious. Kelly, in her “Land of Yesterday” and the mirthfully vulgar tango of “The Countess and the Common Man,” demonstrates an exceptional Carol Burnett-like talent for physical comedy.
Linda Cho’s costumes dazzle, and Peggy Hickey’s choreography, especially her melding of ballet dancers’ Swan Lake into the clever “Quartet at the Ballet,” is assured and seamlessly woven into the pacing.
Anya tells the Dowager Empress that to become Anastasia, her grandmother must recognize her. The Empress replies that to become Anastasia, Anya must recognize herself. Affirming, absorbing, and entertaining, Anastasia prompts us all to seek our authenticity and our dignity. Even if it chucks historical authenticity along the way, that is an uplifting message.
Anastasia, at the Kennedy Center Opera House through November 25. Book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. With Lila Coogan, Stephen Brower, Jason Michael Evans, Joy Franz, Tari Kelly, and Edward Staudenmayer. Scenic design: Alexander Dodge. Costume Design: Linda Cho. Lighting design: Donald Holder. Sound design: Peter Hylenski. Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne. Choreographed by Peggy Hickey. Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Goldberg. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.
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