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BWW Review: Gorgeous but Flawed Stage Adaptation of ANASTASIA Substitutes Whimsy for Stilted Drama

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Not too long after first seeing the Fox Animated studio movie musical Anastasia---initially released in cinemas back in 1997---one of my frequent thoughts about the film following multiple repeat viewings over the years is that the movie, directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, would make for a terrific stage musical adaptation.

And why not? The beautifully animated film was one of those rare non-Disney animated musicals that really struck a chord with audiences (including, yes, a much younger me) that saw the film, thanks to its pleasant combination of engaging (if historically inaccurate) narrative, innovative animation, catchy songs, amusing comic moments, and having a likable main character that's smart, spunky, amiable, and even aspirational.

That's quite a feat for a surprisingly kid-friendly animated movie that attempted to portray a very adult-leaning subject matter: the unsolved mystery of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who was long rumored to have somehow survived the mass execution of her family, the infamous Russian royals, the Romanovs, headed up by Czar Nicholas in the early part of the 20th Century. Their fall from power was instigated by the Communist revolution, ending their dictatorship rule.

Blatant historical discrepancies and insinuations aside, the film managed to gain a minor following among kids and adults over the years as more people discover it on home video.

Oh, and all those catchy, theatrically-tinged songs? They were written by none other than the accomplished musical theater team that brought the world the songs of the epic musical RAGTIME, composers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The film itself even boasts Broadway royalty amongst its voice talent, including Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury, further cementing the film's potential for future stage greatness.

Shockingly, it wasn't until 2016 that a full scale production of ANASTASIA - THE MUSICAL finally made its way to the stage in an "out-of-town" tryout at the Hartford Stage, followed by its eventual Broadway debut a year later. Currently, the show is now in the midst of its North American national tour where it continues performances at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through November 17, 2019.

Like its animated inspiration, the main narrative blueprint for the stage musical adaptation remains mostly similar. Anya (a beautifully-voiced Lila Coogan, whose version of "Journey to the Past" made me cry a bit), an independent, strong-willed young lady living in post-Russian Revolution St. Petersburg, is in search of who she is---literally. She apparently suffers from some kind of amnesia, which renders her with no recollection of her life before waking up in the hospital, not knowing who she is or where she came from originally.

The show's opening prologue, however, provides (and hits us all in the head) with a possible answer that even Anya is unaware of: that she is, perhaps, the grown up Grand Duchess Anastasia, a rumored surviving member of the Romanov family who were all executed during the Russian Revolution that toppled the Czar's dictatorship. All of St. Petersburg is all abuzz with rumors of her escape from the slaughter, but Anya, curiously, has no inkling of any of this.

Hoping to escape the harsh environment of the city, Anya seeks out the help of a couple of local ne'er-do-wells, Vlad (the humorous Edward Staudenmayer) and Dmitry (the vocally blessed Jake Levy) to obtain exit papers. Dmitry---in classic rom-com style---instantly develops a contentious sparring/flirting thing going on with Anya, which to everyone else but him indicates that he's suuuper into her, natch.

Anya's arrival couldn't have come at a perfect time. It turns out Dmitry and Vlad have been holding "auditions" for local girls to pretend to be the missing Anastasia, in order to be later presented to the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) in Paris who is offering up a huge reward for the location and return of her "missing" granddaughter.

Soon they quickly discover that Anya has a remarkable resemblance to the supposedly missing Romanov, prompting the men to convince her that she may be her for real. They're even more shocked when Anya spills out little minute details about Anastasia that neither of them have even coached her on for their scheme.

Wait... could Anya really be Anastasia?

Directed by Darko Tresnjak with an aim to dazzle, at first glance, the musical stage adaptation looks and feels like an appropriately grand, luxe affair---from its gorgeous, turn-of-the-century costumes designed by Linda Cho to the lush soundscape created by the orchestra under the direction of musical director Lawrence Goldberg that combine wonderfully with the vocal talents that have been assembled for this tour (wait until you hear the singing voices of the two leads---they are breathtaking). Even Peggy Hickey's elegant choreography suggests it to be a posh production overall.

The undeniable wow factor of the show is, of course, the stunning visual trifecta that finds Alexander Dodge's dynamic scenic design working in keen harmony with Aaron Rhyne's dazzling projections and Donald Holder's stage lighting, creating seamless, beautiful environments that keep characters completely surrounded by their given locales. The overall technical prowess of this stage musical is just jaw-dropping---and, I must say, is quite an adequate enough reason to experience the show.

But the adaptation's execution of the story itself, however, suffers slightly from its well-meaning intentions---revealing a stage show that feels stilted by its own drama, and with an unsure footing of what it truly wants to be. Is it trying to be a visually arresting fantasy or embellished revisionist history?

Featuring a new book by celebrated playwright Terrence McNally (who also wrote the book for RAGTIME), this version of ANASTASIA---which eschews supernatural elements and cutesy snarky animal sidekicks that talk---takes a decidedly more serious, realistic tone than the animated film, which in the grand scheme is an understandable choice given its tone shift.

Gone is the animated musical's magically-enhanced baddie Rasputin (as well as his cringeworthy villain solo song) who somehow suffers through a zombie-like existence in a sort of purgatory before getting "awakened" by the reemergence of a Romanov descendent. Bartok the talking albino bat loyal to his master Rasputin is also now M.I.A. forcing funnier moments to now come from other characters instead, mainly Tara Kellys' amusing Countess Lily, who provides sharp snark and the occasional chuckles whenever she's brought into a scene, particularly when interacting with Staudenmeyer's Vlad.

I cannot even imagine how either of these "magical" animated characters would be translated well for the stage, so I was surprised that I actually kind of missed having them in the show now that they're gone. Because of their absence, this new stage iteration is somewhat stripped of the film's campy and whimsical elements in favor of being much more serious, straight-laced and stylistically opulent.

Is it a good trade off? Maybe. It's difficult to say considering what this version replaced their villainy with---a weakly-envisioned new composite character named Gleb (an otherwise lovely voiced Jason Michael Evans), a Communist general who is a descendant from one of the men who directly executed the Romanovs. Although he's designed to be a "threat" to Anya's future---especially if she truly is the long lost Anastasia---he doesn't present much of a hinderance nor a conflict, relegating the character to feel somewhat intrusive and unnecessary instead of being a real threat to the livelihood and happiness of our heroine. Sure, the character's been tasked to actually hunt and kill Anya... but his lack of enthusiasm for it does nothing much to propel the plot forward.

But at the end of the day, the enjoyable meat and potatoes of ANASTASIA still exists in its overall DNA, particularly when many of the songs from the film re-emerge in the stage version, even if their intent has been repurposed. Perhaps the most familiar song from the movie is "Journey to the Past" and in this stage version, it's been moved to the final slot in the first act, reimagined as a fittingly triumphant declaration for a long journey for the character who finally reaches her dream destination, unsure of what her future holds but still living for the possibilities.

As flawed as this musical may be, I can honestly say that I still enjoyed most of the journey, especially if I get to listen to this amazing cast sing over and over again. Visually, the view is pretty spectacular, too.


Photos from the National Tour of ANASTASIA - THE MUSICAL by Matthew Murphy.

Performances of ANASTASIA - THE MUSICAL at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, November 17, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.



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