BWW Review: ANASTASIA National Tour Impresses All Ages at Gammage Auditorium
The first clue that ANASTASIA was going to be different than what I expected was a credit on the title page reading, "Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures." Pictures? Plural? A savvy journalist, I quickly asked Siri to bring up the imdb page for "Anastasia". Turns out Fox made ANASTASIA twice, the 1997 animated, off-brand Disney princess movie and a 1957 film that scored Ingrid Bergman's second Oscar win and marked Helen Hayes' transition to the big screen. It also turns out the stage version leans more towards the latter. It has more in common with LES MISERABLES and RAGTIME than BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Gone is the hell-wizard Rasputin, his talking fruit bat sidekick, and the singing demon caterpillars. At intermission, I asked my third grade niece, Adalyn, how she was liking it. "It's awesome...it's real people, like no Beast or anything. No animals." We decide that Disney staged musicals are fun but it's more impressive when you can achieve the magic without a story that departs from reality.
ANASTASIA is a historical fiction hypothetical. It poses a "what if...?" a daughter of the last czar of Russia escaped when the czar's family was executed in 1918. Rumors persisted for decades that Anastasia did, in fact, escape. In 2007, DNA testing confirmed the remains of all four Grand Duchesses were in the Imperial grave. In this version, Terrence McNalley's book follows Anastasia's survival and rediscovery of her identity after the attack on her family leaves her with amnesia. Renamed "Anya", she grows up in post-Revolution Russia while her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (in a staggeringly moving performance by Joy Franz) has fled to France and offered a cash reward for anyone escorting the potentially alive Anastasia to Paris. The wily duo Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and Dmitry (Jake Levy) pull a My Fair Lady style makeover on Anya to collect the Dowager's prize, unaware they have come upon the actual Anastasia. They are pursued by Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a Soviet officer drawn to Anya romantically but tasked with finding and eliminating the her. Anya's memory becomes somewhat coaxed back, but the Dowager has stopped seeing Anastasia claimants after too much heart-break from countless frauds.
It sounds dark, but with beautiful high-tech digital forced perspective scenery and inspired performances across the cast it is delightful. Stephen Flaherty (Music) and Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics), responsible for bringing us RAGTIME, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, LUCKY STIFF, as well as the Oscar nominated songs carried over from the animated film provide some of their best work. ANASTASIA is a perfect context for this pair. "Stay, I Pray You" (my favorite song of the evening) is evocative of RAGTIME's "New Music". The two songs literally race my heart in a strikingly specific way. My real test of a National Tour at Gammage is how fast I get the music playing in my car on the way home. At ANASTASIA, I was already finding, "Stay, I Pray You" walking through the parking lot.
The rest of the score is similarly haunting. Lila Coogan, as Anya/Anastasia, powers through the score with nuance, clarity, and passion. Tari Kelly, as Countess Lily, and Stadenmayer (Vlad) were Adalyn's favorite performances and I have to agree. This incredibly gifted pair take the "triple threat" designation (singer, dancer, actor) and go quadruple with the addition of flawless comic timing.
The choreography by Peggy Hickey is masterful. It somehow combines inventive and traditional throughout and the ten-minute slice of "Swan Lake" infused into "Quartet at the Ballet" is the highlight of the second act. It's a fun-size version of the ballet that gets an under-represented art form onto the plate. This kind of trope often means putting the plot on hold. But here, the ballet is the connective tissue between Anya, Dmitry, the Dowager, and Gleb as they each bring us up to speed heading into the show's climax.
Ultimately, the show's success comes from applying a higher artistic standard to the "previously-animated-film-now-theatrically-staged" genre. It cashes in on the name draw of the 1997 film then gives the viewer something much more enriched than what they think they are coming to see. Parents with Disney-fed kids that are starting to mature creatively could find this a wonderful bridge into the larger world of theatre.
ANASTASIA plays at Gammage Auditorium through November 3rd. Find tickets at asugammage.com