REVIEW: "Anastasia" — Segerstrom Center for the Arts
"...Where an Old-Fashioned Musical Lives Happily Ever After!"
There’s an overwhelming element of excitement, a sense of anticipation in the air as we wait for the curtain to rise on a long-awaited odyssey tour that is not only visually captivating but emotionally powerful — It’s “Anastasia,” making its Center debut at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, playing from November 5th through the 17th with great ostentation.
This sumptuously enchanting fairy tale of a musical will please fully the sentimentality for those who thought the old templates for musical epics were passé, as it fills this grand theatre this night, bursting to capacity.
Inspired by the beloved films of the same name, this adventure-filled musical journey takes us from the twilight of Imperial Russia to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920’s.
Present are the broad strokes of the familiar — a romantic young couple, a villain in hot pursuit, merry-andrew supporting characters, an endearing family member — all this, performed in irresistible taste and craftsmanship. And all that’s asked is that you experience it with a willing suspension of disbelief.
That’s films, plural, if you caught that by the way, not film, and they too were titled “Anastasia.” One of them, from 1997, was an animated spectacle with talking animals and a resurrected Rasputin; the other, a previous, dignified, soapy costume drama from 1956 which starred that most un-cartoonish of actresses, the inimitable Ingrid Bergman, who won a welcome-home Oscar for it after her exile from Hollywood.
In this updated version of the Broadway musical “Anastasia,” which features a book by the acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally and songs by the Tony-winning team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (who collaborated on “Ragtime”), the author shifts between the worldviews of both inspirations, adapting the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia at the center of the piece, and who may be the lone survivor in the royal family.
Largely set in Saint Petersburg and spanning two decades (1907-1927), the musical starts with a dream-like prologue in which a young Anastasia (Delilah Rose Pello, alternating with Eloise Vaynshtok) bids farewell to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who’s leaving for Paris.
That is the last time the Empress will see her family as all of the Romanovs are tragically killed by the Bolsheviks in a 1917 invasion — all of the Romanovs, as the legend goes, except for the Princess Anastasia.
The much cherished show premiered on Broadway in April 2017, resulting in many award nominations, including two Tony’s, nine Drama Desk, twelve Outer Critic Circles and a Chita Rivera nomination for dance and choreography. There has been a number of similar mid-20th-century musicals produced — frothy, earnest shows, set in distant times and foreign lands, with titles like "Mata Hari," and "Pleasures and Palaces." Such shows, of course, had a hard time squeezing their epic-size selves into the corsets of book-musical conventions, and most died on the vine because of it.
Fortunately, there should be no similar fate for “Anastasia,” which originated at Hartford Stage in Connecticut and is directed by Darko Tresnjak (a Tony winner for his ingenious staging of "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"). With choreography both stately and antic by Peggy Hickey, along with a first-class design team,“Anastasia” weaves an enchanting spell, tapping into a dewy-eyed demographic that has made the show such an indestructible favorite.
We meet then, Anya (Lila Coogan; Broadway: “Mary Poppins,” Regional: “Hairspray”) — an 18-year-old orphan wandering the streets of post-revolution St. Petersburg, stuck in the middle of an identity crisis and struggling to survive.
In a happenstance encounter with street Svengalis, Dmitry (Jake Levy, “Carrie,” “Carousel”) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer; Broadway: “Wonderland,” “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me”), she's given an opportunity to pose as the long-lost Anastasia, youngest daughter to Czar Nicholas II, and make her way to Paris, where her last surviving relative — the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Joy Franz; Broadway: “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” “Into the Woods”) — is waiting with a hefty reward. Before the journey to France, they spend considerable time in the first act, training her in aristo ways in a wan “My Fair Lady”-style tutoring session, fine-tuning her instinctive poise, commanding condescension and cut-glass accent.
There are a few obstacles along the way, though they're different here than in the film. The villains, evil sorcerer Rasputin and his albino bat sidekick Bortok, have both been smartly scrapped for the stage. In their place is a new antagonist, Gleb (Jason Michael Evans; New York: “Passion,” “On Your Toes”), a revolutionary general who finds himself split between his unexpected love for Anya and his duty to her enemies.
The change is just the first of many made by McNally, who effectively infuses the time period's real-life politics into the show's plot. Here, characters sing about the painful aftermath of revolution, the longing of loss — even the complicated emotions of having to leave behind a homeland that no longer feels like a home. These modifications have elevated the stakes at play, and also aged the piece's target consumer. Whereas the 1997 film was more Disney-ish in style, most of McNally's plot intricacies would go right over a young child's head, making "Anastasia" now an ideal date night out for adults.
So, unlike delicate-damsel stories such as “Giselle” or “Swan Lake,” there are no sorcerers or spells, no fairy godmothers or cure-all kisses of a prince. In this version, Anastasia isn’t going to be the standard fairy-tale princess who is adored for her beauty and virtue. Here, she’s not the object of intrigue, she’s a participant in it.
After the break, the setting now is Paris, and Act Two centers primarily on the reunion between Anya and the Empress, with the Empress slowly coming to realize that Anya is, in fact, who she claims to be. The tweeds and drab wools of Act One are swapped for candy colored silks and Swarovski crystals. Costume designer Linda Cho and set designer Alexander Dodge put their respective Tony-winning and Tony-nominated hands to great use — Ms. Cho’s vivid and vibrant clothing are center stage, including elaborate, flowing gowns, exquisite formal wear for royalty, tiaras, sarafans, caftans, traditional wear, homespun coats, and military uniforms detailed right down to the stripe on the leg and ribbons on the breast pocket.
And Aaron Rhyne’s photorealistic images and hi-def screen-based moving projections are true standouts of the show, bringing depth and cinematic sweep to Mr. Dodge’s sets as they transport the audience from one moment in Saint Petersburg, then on to a realistic multi-dimensional speeding train, then arriving in a cherry-blossom-filled park in Paris. All deserve standing ovations.
Ahrens and Flaherty have also enhanced the melodic score and added 16 new songs to pump up emotions, excitement and comic shtick, as needed, to fill in the expedient-to-a-fault script by McNally, keeping five of the animated movie's most-popular tracks including two haunting numbers, "Once Upon a December," and “In My Dreams.”
But the cast performances are really where "Anastasia" scintillates. Director Tresnjak keeps the action grounded and moving using the stunning 26-piece ensemble wisely. This incredible group includes Lucy Horton as Tsarina Alexandra/Ensemble, Brad Greer as Tsar Nicholas II/Count Ipolitov/Count Gregory and Ensemble, Taylor Quick playing Young Anastasia/Paulina and Ensemble, Kylie Victoria Edwards as Maria Romanov/Marfa and Ensemble, Lyrica Woodruff as Olga Romanov/Odette in Swan Lake and Ensemble, Kourtney Keitt as Tatiana Romanov/Dunya and Ensemble, and Delilah Rose Pellow and Eloise Vaynshtok alternate in the role of Alexi Romanov.
Fred Inkley is Gorlinsky/Count Leopold and Ensemble, Peter Garza is the Russian Doorman and Ensemble, Alison Ewing is Countess Gregory and Ensemble, Mark MacKillop is Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and Ensemble, Ronnie S. Bowman Jr. is Von Rothbart in Swan Lake and Ensemble. Other Ensemble includes Tamra Hayden, Ryan Mac, and Daniel Z. Miller. Swings are Hannah Florence, Jeremiah Ginn, Kenneth Michael Murray and Sareen Tchekmedyian. Understudies are: For Anya, Hannah Florence and Taylor Quick; For Dmitry, Ryan Mac and Daniel Z. Miller; For Vlad, Jeremiah Ginn and Fred Inkley; For Dowager Empress, Alison Ewing and Tamra Hayden; For Countess Lily, Alison Ewing and Lucy Horton; For Gleb, Peter Garza and Brad Greer. Dance Captain is Kenneth Michael Murray.
As the young woman who finds not only her identity but sense of self, Ms. Coogan takes the spotlight with the same assured conviction with which Anya takes the crown. And if thoughts of Julie Andrews pop up along the way, it isn’t inappropriate or undeserved, given Ms. Coogan’s vocal strength and emotional range, physical presence and timing. She gives Anya an instant likeability and spunk, and soars at the book's more emotionally vulnerable moments. Her showstopping, Oscar-nominated "Journey to the Past," which closes the first act — is the sort of pure, perfect soprano that pierces the heart and warms the soul.
Mr. Levy fills in the boyish hero outline with charm, humor and a gorgeous voice as crisp in texture as his earthy look. Though there are no real romantic duets for either leads, they make a perfect pair and strike a special bond with “In a Crowd of Thousands,” an unexpected emotional highlight. The part of Gleb, the musical’s autocratic-yet-conflicted Bolshevik, is played with dark dreaminess and clarion pipes by Mr. Evans. And, as the Dowager Empress, Ms. Franz brings imperial gravitas, as well as a grandmother’s heartbreak and joy to the role.
But Mr. Staudenmayer’s Vlad and his libidinous lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly; Broadway: “Groundhog Day,” “Something Rotten”) prove to be the most dynamic performers of the bunch. Reunited, these two score big in their comic turns as they make out like sexed-up variations of those roguish old lovers played by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in “Gigi.”
Their mad ham waltz, “The Countess and the Common Man,” is delightfully staged by Peggy Hickey, bringing a well-needed lightheartedness to the show’s second act. Ms. Hickey’s choreography also includes a rousing expat number “Land of Yesterday,” with just a bit of “Swan Lake” likeness, featuring multitudes of swirling ghosts of the Romanov Empire dancing around Alexander Dodge’s elegant set, exquisitely lit by Donald Holder and enhanced by Peter Hylenski’s vivid sound design. Production Stage Manager is Richard A. Leigh.
The show runs more than 2 ½ hours, with one 15 minute intermission, and utilizes theatrical haze, strobe lights, gunshot sound effects and smoke. For ticket information and reservations, go to: https://www.scfta.org/
“Anastasia,” a musical you will never forget, playing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts from November 5th through November 17th, exploring one determined girl’s journey to find home, love, and family as she embraces not only who she once was, but who she is now meant to be. In this alt-reality, history is rewritten, and a princess finds her bliss — and an old-fashioned musical manages to live happily ever after.
The Show Report