BWW Review: ANASTASIA at Rochester Broadway Theatre League
Perfectly timed for the blistery cold Rochester weather we're all suffering through, the RBTL is currently presenting "Anastasia", the stage adaptation of the 1997 animated movie in which audience members are whisked away to snowy St. Petersburg during the height of the Russian Revolution of the 1920's. This era of political upheaval is the backdrop, but the story focuses on a young woman and her journey through the past to find her family and her identity.
"Anastasia" (music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, book by Terrence McNally) adapts the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia (Maddiekay Harris, Eloise Vaynshtok, Taylor Quick), who escaped the execution of her family at the hands of Bolshevik soldiers. Years later, an amnesic Anastasia (now going by "Anya") joins two con men, Dmitry (Jake Levy) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), in an attempt to trace her lineage and discover who she really is; or, in the case of Dmitry and Vlad, simply exploit her likeness to the Grand Duchess in order to secure the vast fortune being offered as a reward.
For those of you who, like me, have great fondness for the animated film version of "Anastasia", you'll soon find out that the stage adaptation has several major differences, most of which--unfortunately--aren't for the better. Rather than the mystical sorcerer Rasputin (voiced masterfully in the film by Christopher Llyod), the main protagonist in the staged "Anastasia" is a young Bolshevik officer named Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) who's determined to kill Anastasia and end the Romanov bloodline forever. While this plot change likely made for an easier transition to the stage (the movie's Rasputin wields sorcery, magic, summons demons, and does other stuff that would prove tricky IRL), it doesn't make for more coherent or captivating storytelling.
Gleb is oddly missing for large swaths of the show, detaching the viewer from his narrative arc, and the political motivations that are supposedly fueling his hatred for the Romanovs are only passingly explored, glossed over quickly with a few communist-y images and sprinkles of dialogue about revolution. This infusion of history and politics into the show proves to be a bit of a head-scratcher; while it's definitely a part of the tapestry of the film, it's never a focal point, and the musical's treatment of it is thin and fleeting, leaving the audience to wonder why it was included at all.
Amongst the cast, the standout is undoubtedly Edward Staudenmayer, whose Vlad is boisterous, jolly, and full of life. In a very close second is Countess Lily (Alison Ewing), the Dowanger Empress' confidant and gatekeeper. While some of the other leads show obvious signs of tour fatigue, these two are still energetic and wildly entertaining. And as a whole the ensemble certainly shines at various points, particularly in "A Rumor in St. Petersburg" and "The Neva Flows."
The saving grace of "Anastasia", and far-and-away its most exciting element, are the special effects. The show's artistic team spared no expense when it came to production design, packing the show full of realistic battles scenes, magical dream sequences, a thrilling train escape, and even a fully-staged scene from "Swan Lake".
Though it's at times lifeless and not terribly provocative--especially coming on the heels of "Come from Away" and "The Lion King", RBTL's terrific recent showcases-"Anastasia" is visually captivating and will likely provide an entertaining night at the theatre for younger audience members who enjoy the animated source material. For tickets and more information, click here.