BWW Review: ANASTASIA at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
Irrationally loyal to the Walt Disney Company at the stubborn old age of 12, I watched Anastasia on VHS in 1998 and, truth be told, never really gave it a chance.
Then came news of a Broadway staging, and thus a reason to re-watch with grown-up eyes. What I found was that Fox's Anastasia is fundamentally a fairy tale as compelling as any that Walt Disney Pictures had ever tackled. It is the story of a "lost princess" in a quest for her destiny, seeking both love and a throne in the wake of her parents' death - all themes well worn in the Magic Kingdom.
ANASTASIA has added allure: it's rooted in real history. While experts have definitively disproved the notion that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov might have survived the murder of her family during a political revolution in the early 1900s, it is a fact that for many years a lot of people believed she might have... and a cavalcade of imposters kept that legend alive for the better part of a century.
It is in this history of fraudulence that ANASTASIA finds an angle. Instead of a straightforward chronicle of the Romanovs' rise and fall or a prototypical "here is the princess, let's get her home" plotline, ANASTASIA engages with the legend, supposing that one of the would-be imposters might have been the real deal after all - a clever conceit, though its natural ending is arguably obvious.
Unfortunately, Fox was brand-new to the world of feature animation in 1997 and not entirely up to the task. Anastasia's art was better than expected, its original songs were stage-worthy, and its voice cast formidable. But there were also demons for some reason, along with a decomposing sorcerer and a communist-leaning albino bat who lives in Hell.
Thankfully, when ANASTASIA hit Broadway, it dispensed with anyone immortal or winged, replacing fantasy with the real-world politics that led up to the Romanovs' demise. The added historical context grounds this once-wacky story, and frankly, I would have welcomed even more of it.
Our new antagonist is a Bolshevik soldier named Gleb, whose interest in Anastasia is clearly more than professional - a dynamic I wish the show would explore further, as Gleb is a major character here but his conflict and motivation are only half-baked. In the national touring production now on stage at Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando, he is played by Jason Michael Evans, who delivers a fine performance despite occasionally falling flat.
The songs are vocally demanding, but this cast is capable. Stephen Brower is a natural complement to Dmitry, the good-natured, clean-cut street rat who helps our protagonist make her way to Paris. Edward Staudenmayer is funny, likeable, and suitably voiced as Vlad, Dmitry's elder partner in crime. Later, Tari Kelly emerges as the second act's most pleasant surprise, her big voice and strong stage presence making you wish her character (the Countess Lily) played a bigger part in Act One. Her lusty romp with Vlad brings the house down, the audience nearly stopping the show with applause.
But Lila Coogan is the star, her voice pleasant, well supported, and full. She manages to marry the geniality of a princesse peut-être with the frustrations of a woman torn between identities and haunted by a past she can't recall. For me, her performance falters only in its lighter moments (fending off a pack of St. Petersburg thugs, for example, though the unconvincing fight choreography might be as much to blame).
I was equally impressed by Joy Franz, whose take on Anastasia's grandmother, the Dowager Empress, is different from (and harsher than) Angela Lansbury's in the movie but just as effective - and her singing nearly as lovely.
It's worth noting that I was alone in these sentiments during post-show conversations in the theatre lobby, my fellow patrons less taken with Coogan's and Franz's performances than I was, so your mileage may vary. (There was just one performance that left me nonplussed, and it's a minor one: Fred Inkley's hammy turn as a cartoony Count Leopold.)
Another hot topic of conversation in the hall: the show's use of digital projection, an increasingly popular trend on Broadway and the source of some controversy among those who prefer practical sets and effects (it's the same debate happening in Hollywood and on theme park message boards).
ANASTASIA is lit beautifully but relies almost entirely on projected backgrounds, sometimes gorgeous and convincing but at other times too obviously digital and downright distracting. The Act One finale, in which a rapidly moving background creates the illusion of train travel, ought to come with a motion sickness warning. But then, right after that, there's a stunning reveal of the City of Lights.
On stage, ANASTASIA plays to two audiences: those who grew up with the movie (many assuming it was a Disney product all along) and those who are just here for a solid piece of theatre. Both camps can walk away pleased. The movie's songs still stand out as the strongest, but even if the new numbers aren't consistently memorable, they aren't lazy either. The melodies are interesting enough, and the lyrics almost always engage the plight. Only one sequence strikes me as straight filler: "Land of Yesterday," a comedic lament set inside a bar during the second act.
The irony is that, after all these years of people confusing Anastasia for a Disney movie, now it is one, the Walt Disney Company having just acquired Fox while this show was already in the middle of its national tour. (Note that ANASTASIA is not produced by Disney Theatrical.)
Might we see a live-action movie based on the stage show? As I write this review, there's a story in the news about Disney CEO Bob Iger wanting to remake classic Fox films in the near future. For now, like Anastasia herself, it's only a rumor, though maybe one worth buying into. And the show is worth buying into too... if you're lucky enough to find a ticket for this sold-out Orlando run (though even if you do, you won't find a Playbill, as I must dutifully report that the theatre has resorted to budget-run programs this year).
ANASTASIA is another solid entry in Dr. Phillips Center's strongest season to date, and it's a show we probably haven't heard the last of. To try your hand at tickets, or to learn more about the current 2018-2019 Broadway in Orlando season (or the upcoming 2019-2020 season), visit the Dr. Phillips Center website.