Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

National Tour
Review by Scott Cain

Willem Butler, Veronica Stern, and Bryan Seastrom
Photo by Evan Zimmerman
Theatergoers have become accustomed to seeing Disney animated features become full-blown stage musicals, so it shouldn't be a surprise that a non-Disney cartoon film would also be receive a live adaptation. Anastasia has a strong theatrical pedigree, and the national tour currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati boasts a talented cast.

Anastasia is a fictionalized tale based on the legend that the youngest daughter of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II survived the execution of her family during the 1917-1918 Bolshevik revolution. In this version, a young woman (Anya) with amnesia is coached by two con men (Dmitry and Vlad) to pretend to be Anastasia to collect reward money from her surviving grandmother in Paris, but things keep pointing to the possibility that she could be the actual Anastasia. The show began in 1997 as a 20th Century Fox animated feature, before becoming this stage version through a 2017 Broadway production (after appearing at Hartford Stage the year before).

The book by Terrence McNally varies quite a lot from the cartoon version. The mystical villain of Rasputin is gone and is replaced with a fanatical Bolshevik general named Gleb Vaganov, assigned to hunt down Anastasia if she is still alive. All of the supporting characters are expanded significantly with backstories and more concrete motivations. While this helps from a dramatic perspective, the show feels padded and too long by about twenty minutes. Still, the core story with historical context of a young woman seeking to remember her past and find her future is interesting and told clearly.

The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Once On This Island, Seussical) incorporates most of the songs from the film, along with many new ones written specifically for the live version. Like their other scores, the show boasts highly melodic music from Flaherty and witty and well-crafted lyrics by Ahrens. Highlights include "Journey to the Past" and "Once Upon a December" from the film, and newer numbers such as "In My Dream", "Land of Yesterday", and "Quartet at the Ballet."

Original director Darko Tresnjak supplies brisk transitions and suitable blocking, but he should have ideally guided the piece to be shorter and more focused. His work is re-created here by Sarah Hartmann. The choreography by Peggy Hickey, and copied by Bill Burns for the tour, is varied and appropriate. Jeremy Robin Lyons leads a great sounding (if small) eight-piece orchestra.

In the original film version, the role of Anya was sung by Broadway performer Liz Callaway, who (briefly) attended the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). The Broadway production was led by another CCMer, Christy Altomare. So, it seems fitting that this (non-Equity) tour also has a CCM grad as Anya. Veronica Stern (CCM Class of 2021) brings layers to the character, is pensive and endearing, and sings the show's primary numbers with great skill. Willem Butler is a fun and eager Dmitry, and Bryan Seastrom (Vlad) and Madeline Raube (Countess Lily) provide well-placed comic relief. Understudy William Aaron Bishop sang the role of Gleb well at the performance I attended, and made the most out of the role. Gerry Weagraff supplies warmth and style as the Dowager Empress. The hardworking ensemble deserves kudos for their many quick changes and some lovely choral work.

Anastasia possesses a unique and eye-popping visual treat. The set design by Alexander Dodge uses a few smaller pieces, but for the most part relies on projections by Aaron Rhyne to create the details when displayed on the back screen and two side columns. The vivid and vibrant colors and beautiful locales rendered through the projections are astonishing. These include full-motion visuals of a moving train, dancing ghosts, falling snow, and stunning street scenes. It's surprising that with this example of what can be accomplished through projections (Rhyne did deservedly win a Tony for it) that more shows don't use them to a fuller extent. The costuming by Linda Cho feature many beautiful details, especially for the royal family and for some of the French costumes. Donald Holder supplies excellent lighting as usual.

Like many of the shows this season, Anastasia is a new option for the Broadway Series in Cincinnati and a welcomed addition. While the musical might be slow in spots, and decidedly more adult than most musicals based on animated films, it still supplies a strong cast, rousing songs, and projections at a level rarely seen in musical theater.

Anastasia runs through January 15, 2023, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit For more information on the tour, visit