BWW Review: ANASTASIA is a Dazzling Spectacle!

BWW Review: ANASTASIA is a Dazzling Spectacle!
(center) Lila Coogan (right) Stephen Broyer
(photo by Michael Murphy)

ANASTASIA is now playing at Bass Concert Hall as part of Lexus Broadway in Austin, presented by Texas Performing Arts. Based on the 1997 animated film of the same name, this fictional retelling of the youngest Romanov daughter has been adapted into a full-length musical. While the real-life Anastasia sadly perished alongside her family in 1917, the rumor of her possible escape and survival became one of the twentieth century's biggest mysteries and has since become a mainstay in popular culture. With a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, ANASTASIA the musical originally premiered in Hartford, Connecticut in May 2016 and opened on Broadway in March 2017. When the production ends its Broadway run next month, it will have played over 800 performances.

The musical tells the story of Anya (Lila Coogan), a young street sweeper struck with amnesia who sets out to uncover the secrets of her past. Relentlessly pursued by a Soviet official (Jason Michael Evans), Anya must accept the help of a charming conman (Stephen Brower) and an endearing former aristocrat (Edward Staudenmayer) who team up to transform her into the Grand Duchess to collect the handsome reward offered by her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz). Facing danger at every turn, the ragtag group embarks on a journey to help Anya find out who she truly is and where she came from. From the fall of the Russian Empire to the magic of Paris in the 1920s, ANASTASIA is an adventure of love, acceptance, and self-discovery.

From the moment the curtain rises, it is clear that this production is a rich spectacle for the eyes and ears. The musical delivers the grandeur of Imperial Russia and Paris in its awe-inspiring technical elements. The intricate costumes by Linda Cho gracefully adorn the actors throughout the two-act musical, the standout being the sumptuous ball gowns worn by the women of the Imperial Russian court. Scenic design by Alexander Dodge and lighting design by Donald Holder transports audiences between the various settings and atmospheres of the musical. From the terror of the revolution to the ethereal dreams as Anya's memories unfold, the audience is fully engulfed in the action. The unparalleled use of projection and video by designer Aaron Rhyne solidifies this show as a technical marvel. This skillful use of projection carries the musical's settings beyond the stage, bringing the cold, desolate streets of St. Petersburg and the Parisian Ballet directly into the confines of the theatre.

Performances by the principal and supporting cast are dynamic and vibrant. Lila Coogan as Anya embraces the strength and power of her role. Coogan's ferocity as the possible long lost royal commands the attention of the audience and her powerful vocals soar through to the rafters. Tough and self-reliant, Coogan's take on Anya may be tiny in stature but is a force that's larger than life. Stephen Brower as Dmitry brings a vulnerable aspect to the street smart con man. Dmitry's jaded exterior gives way more than once to offer a glimpse of a hopeful young boy longing to be loved. Edward Staudenmayer as Dmitry's co-conspirator, Vlad is an absolute delight from start to finish. Staudenmayer offers plenty of witty remarks and comedic relief as the one-time aristocrat and serves as a makeshift parental guide for his younger collaborators. Jason Michael Evans as Soviet official, Gleb is a harsh and intense opponent. Evans' portrayal highlights Gleb's own inner conflict with the man he thinks he must become and his own true feelings. Rounding out the supporting cast is Joy Franz as the heavy-hearted Dowager Empress still holding out hope and the marvelous Tari Kelly as Vlad's high flying, fun-loving former fling, Countess Lily.

Music and Lyrics by Flaherty and Ahrens is an epic and emotional soundtrack to the show's book by Mcnally. While timeless favorites still include "Once Upon a December," and the culminating song of Act I "Journey to the Past," the new songs filling out the two and a half hour production are a welcome addition. New favorite songs and performances include "My Petersburg," "The Countess and the Common Man," and "In a Crowd of Thousands." The piece also touches on the reality faced by refugees fleeing their country. In the song "Stay, I Pray You," the characters grieve the loss of their homeland while struggling to remain hopeful that the unknown journey ahead will bring a better life.

Terrence McNally's book grounds the story in stark reality. Unlike the 1997 film which included an evil sorcerer, a fictionalized version of the real-life mystic Rasputin, and a talking bat as the villains, McNally's version makes the danger more tangible with the addition of the Soviet army. McNally also injects small historical facts known to be true of the real Romanov family's life after the fall of the empire which adds more historical accuracy when able. Though these elements add richness to the production, it doesn't help the disconnected contrast of the two acts. Going from Act I which is mostly serious and intense, to the almost cartoonish comedy of Act II often feels like the audience is experiencing two different plays. While the sudden change is disorienting and leaves the last half of the musical feeling out of sorts, the entertaining pageantry is still enjoyable to watch.

In closing, ANASTASIA is a dazzling spectacle sure to delight theatre lovers of all ages. Whether you're a history buff, grew up with the film or are a newcomer to the mysterious story of the lost princess, you will find something to love. Run, don't walk to catch this instant musical theatre classic before it leaves Austin on February 17th.

ANASTASIA is now playing at Bass Concert Hall (2350 Robert Dedman Dr, 78712 ) until February 17th, Thursday-Sunday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 2:00 pm, and Sunday at 1:00 pm.

Run time: approximately two hours and thirty minutes with fifteen-minute intermission.

Tickets: Start at $30

Tickets are available at BroadwayinAustin.com, texaspeformingarts.org, the Bass Concert Hall ticket office, all Texas Box Office Outlets, by phone (512) 477-6060. For groups of 10 or more, call (877) 275-3804 or email Austin.groups@broadwayacrossamerica.com.

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From This Author Lacey Cannon Gonzales

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