BWW Review: ANASTASIA National Tour at Durham Performing Arts Center
Based on 20th Century Fox's 1997 animated film musical of the same name, Anastasia is inspired by the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, who could have escaped the execution of her family. Years later, an amnesiac orphan named Anya hopes to find some trace of her past by siding with two con men who wish to take advantage of her likeness to the Grand Duchess.
In adapting the animated film for the stage, all the supernatural elements were omitted in favor of a more historical context. After having its world premiere at Hartford Stage in Connecticut almost a year earlier, the stage adaptation opened on April 24th, 2017 at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway. It recently concluded its run on March 31st last month after a run of 808 performances.
As for what I think of the show itself, this to me almost feels like the kind of musical Rodgers & Hammerstein would write back in the Golden Age of Broadway. It's a family oriented musical that fictionalizes history (The King & I, The Sound of Music), features a stunning ballet sequence in the middle (Oklahoma!, Carousel), and a lush, beautiful score that successfully moves the story along. Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty took five of the songs they wrote for the cartoon, and augmented them with about 14 new ones written just for the stage, and they all blend in so seamlessly well. The score is also brought to life by Doug Besterman's incredible orchestrations.
Book writer Terrence McNally does a great job of taking the essence of the animated film, yet completely re-thinks the plot as a Broadway musical. Not only does it take a more historical approach, but it also moves some of the pre-existing songs to different places in the plot, and goes deeper into the story and characters. This allows an opportunity for the cast to work with some great material, bringing in grade-A performances. Lila Coogan proves to be quite a strong Anya as she goes from a street sweeper with amnesia in the beginning of the show, yet starts to remember more of her past as the night goes on. Coogan even offers some breathtaking solos in Act I with her renditions of 'In My Dreams' (one of the new songs) and 'Journey to the Past' (the Oscar nominated classic from the film). When that latter number begins, I could definitely hear the excitement coming from the audience.
At the performance I was in attendance for, Matt Rosell went on for Stephen Brower as Dimitry. Rosell does a great job as the young con man who teams up with Vlad Popov, an ex-member of the Imperial Court, to groom a naive girl to become Anastasia in order to receive the reward from the Dowager Empress. In fact, watching Anya and Dimitry's chemistry grow from how they don't get along at first to caring more for each other is quite a delight. Edward Staudenmayer not only proves to be quite a comedic highlight as Vlad, but he is also well-matched by Tari Kelly as the Dowager Empress's lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch. While she doesn't appear in the show until Act II, we the audience learn about her near the end of Act I as Vlad expresses his hopes of winning her back. Joy Franz gives a heartfelt performance as Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. That character only appears in the beginning of the first act, but does appear more in the second act, even offering up some heartbreaking moments.
Under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, he has Alexander Dodge's neatly designed physical set in the foreground with some impressive projections (courtesy of Aaron Rhyne) in the background. They provide more context to the locations every scene takes place in. Everything else beautifully compliments one another with Donald Holder's lighting Linda Cho's costumes, and Peggy Hickey's terrific choreography.
I will say that the one quibble I probably have is the new character of Gleb Vaganov, a general for the Bolsheviks who receives orders to kill Anya. He replaces the dangerously evil and power-crazed sorcerer, Rasputin, from the cartoon. While Gleb seems to have potential to be this Javert-like character as he's an official going after the protagonist, yet has all these conflicted emotions, he for some reason just doesn't feel like a big enough threat in the plot. Though with that being said, actor Jason Michael Evans does make the best with what he's given.
Overall, Anastasia is a great family musical that never once talks down to kids at all. It not only has comic relief that flows naturally from the actors instead of being played for laughs, but also themes that should resonate with audiences of all ages. This show is about finding hope, love, and family. I highly recommend it. This national touring production is currently playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through April 21st.