Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Bare
Anastasia is inspired by the mysterious legend and rumors of whether the young Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia was actually executed, along with her family, or if she somehow miraculously survived. The musical's plot follows Anya, a young woman with amnesia who gets pulled into a scheme by two con menthe young, handsome and charming Dmitry, who had a brief encounter with the real Anastasia when they were children, and the scheming but lovable Vladwho want to leverage her resemblance to Anastasia to get the reward money from the Dowager Empress, who has all but given up hope that her long-lost granddaughter survived. Adding to the intrigue is the show's main antagonist, General Gleb Vaganov, whose father was involved in the execution of Anastasia's family and is given orders to kill Anya if she is indeed the real Anastasia.
The musical's book by Terrence McNally wisely jettisons the mystical elements of the animated film, including the movie villain Rasputin, which helps ground the plot in realism. The writers of the film soundtrack, Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), fleshed out the half dozen movie songs carried over to the stage musical with an abundance of new character specific ballads, love songs, and comical tunes. The musical is much darker and realistic than the film, which downplayed some of the tragedy of the actual Romanov murders. The stage adaptation also accurately depicts the political tensions of the period, which gives a better understanding as to why the Romanovs were murdered. However, several of the new songs are forgettable and don't move the plot forward; for example, the songs for Gleb all sound the same. There are also some swift shifts in tone and several far-fetched and contrived story elements and the plot starts to bog down under the weight of the extraneous material that often gets in the way of Anya's story.
Fortunately, director Darko Tresnjak beautifully incorporates the creative aspects of his stellar design team to deliver rich visual imagery throughout and to keep the pace of the piece brisk. Aaron Rhyne's lifelike, three-dimensional projections provide stunning backdrops and swift cinematic transitions between scenes. Linda Cho's costumes are gorgeous period recreations composed of rich, embellished fabrics. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge and lighting designer Donald Holder contribute beautiful elements; the scene in which Anya conjures up Romanov ghosts from the past is especially effective. The sound design by Peter Hylenski delivers crisp and clear vocals, and the choreography by Peggy Hickey provides some upbeat comical moments, giving the ensemble a chance to shine, as well as a moving segment from Swan Lake in the second act that is danced beautifully by Sareen Tchekmedyian.
The majority of the leads have been with the touring production since it launched a year ago, including Lila Coogan, who is superb as Anya. From Coogan's vivid facial expressions and line delivery we truly believe Anya suffers from amnesia with only a few clear memories left of her past. Through Coogan's layered performance we see how Anya is vulnerable, confused, and somewhat stubborn but also a strong and feisty young woman who can take care of herself. Once fragments of memories of the past start to come back to her and she begins to think it might be true that she is Anastasia, we also see from the nuance and realism Coogan brings to the role how the possible truth of Anya's past causes her conflicted feelings. Coogan has a clear and powerful singing voice that soars on her many songs, including a gorgeous "Journey to the Past" that ends act one on an emotionally moving high.
Jake Levy and Edward Staudenmayer are both quite good as Dmitry and Vlad, the two men who start out using Anya as the centerpiece of their con but eventually help her find her true self. Levy exudes charm and charisma as the enthusiastic young schemer and Staudenmayer provides a nice amount of humor to his part. They both have beautiful and bright singing voices, with Levy's pure voice delivering some lovely sounding ballads. Also, Levy and Coogan create a realistic level of romantic tension between their characters which adds to the fairy-tale charm of the piece.
With a commanding and regal presence, Joy Franz is charismatic as the somewhat bitter but entirely lovable Dowager Empress. As Gleb, Jason Michael Evans provides some layers to the somewhat thankless and underwritten role, which allows us to see the torment Gleb feels when faced with the instructions to murder Anya. Evans' deep voice also delivers rich vocals on his solos. As Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress's lady in waiting, Tari Kelly gives the show a big shot of comedy in the second act, including the fun duet she shares with Staudenmayer, "The Countess and the Common Man." Even though it slows the thrust of the show down, it is a stand-out moment.
While Anastasia may have a few too many musical numbers that are forgettable and comic scenes that slow the action down, with a talented cast and visually stunning creative aspects, it results in a crowd-pleasing musical that combines fairy tale with fact.
Anastasia runs through November 3, 2019 at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit anastasiathemusical.com.
Book by Terrence McNally