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Review: ANASTASIA Delights at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre Now Thru Sep 29

Review: ANASTASIA Delights at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre Now Thru Sep 29

The persistent legend, mystique and fascination of what may have happened to Anastasia after her Russian royal family was executed in 1918 finds a new home in the musical, Anastasia. It's daunting subject matter to be sure, covering revolution, the death of the Romanov family and the rumor that Anastasia may have survived the carnage of her ill-fated family - but playwright Terrence McNally was up for the task.

He started with the 1997 animated film of the same name as his template, excising characters, trimming a little here and adding a bit there. Then he teamed up with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who wrote the original score for the movie, and together this creative team wrapped the legend with layers of music, romance, history and yes, comedy for the Broadway stage, much to the audience's delight. Visually stunning (Projections designs by Aaron Rhyne) and richly costumed (Linda Cho captures both pomp and pageantry as well as peasant austerity), Anastasia takes the audience into the crosswinds of history and mythic imagination for a wistful look into the past and hopeful eye to the future.

The story begins in 1906 with a short prologue that introduces us to 6-year-old Anastasia (the charming and delightful Delilah Rose Pellow on opening night). She's sad that her "nana," the Dowager Empress (play with stately grace by Joy Franz) is leaving for Paris before the last ball of the winter season in Petersburg. The gift of a music box to her favorite granddaughter and assurances of meeting again in Paris placate the young child. Grandmama departs and Anastasia goes with her family to the ball. Director Darko Tresnjak uses the beautiful ballroom setting to introduce us to the family and their court. are Dressed in formal royal attire they glide across the dance floor while snow flurries speak of the cold outside the palace windows (Scenic design by Alexander Dodge). Anastasia dances with her father, Czar Nicholas II (Brad Greer), and as she goes around a pillar, suddenly we're in 1917 and the teenaged Anastasia (Lila Coogan) is dancing at the ball that takes place right before the family is executed by the Bolsheviks.

Now in Paris, the Dowager Empress receives word that the Czar and his family have all been killed, though rumors begin to surface that Princess Anastasia may have survived. Back in Russia, two ne'er do wells, the young Dmitry (a charming Stephen Brower) and his older comrade Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer is an absolute delight in this role) hatch a scheme to find a girl to pose as Anastasia. They plan to sneak her out of Russia, across Europe and into Paris to present her to the Dowager Empress for a hefty reward.

After auditioning several girls and despairing of finding a convincing princess, a street sweeper named Anya walks in. Destitute and looking to buy false exit papers to get out of Russia, she impresses them with her likeness of the princess. It doesn't hurt that she has amnesia and doesn't remember her past. Slowly they convince that she could possibly be the real Anastasia. Soon her lessons in comportment and Romanov family history begin. For Dmitry and Vlad, it's to fool the Dowager Empress. But for Anya? She's just trying to remember a past that always flits in and out of her dreams.

In the role of antagonist is Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a Soviet official who hears that the street sweeper he'd met once could be masquerading as Anastasia. Gleb, whose childhood memories include the fact that his father was a guard in the revolution and witnessed the execution of the royal family is played with tortured ambiguity by Evans. He will follow Anya to Paris - but he doesn't know if it's to court her or kill her.

Coogan shines as the orphaned Anya, who is feisty and strong despite her painful past and tenuous present. Her beautiful, lilting soprano rings out about hazy memories from long ago but she can't be sure if it's Dmitry and Vlad's lessons or if it's her family history that's making its way to the surface of her mind. But the bigger dilemma of escaping Russia overrides all other needs and soon they prepare to head to Paris to meet their future.

In a touching scene, Anya, Dmitri and Vlad board the train with the other Russians who are also escaping the place of their birth. They face the plight that every migrant forced to leave their homeland faces. Whether due to war, famine, natural disaster or economic dearth - the keening pain of leaving against your will is still the same. Staudenmayer's deeply resonant voice captures the sadness and touches the audience with the song, "Stay, I Pray You."

How can I desert you?

How to tell you why?

Coachmen hold the horses

Stay, I pray you

Let me have a moment

Let me say goodbye....I'll bless my homeland till I die

It's a poignant moment - one that continues to be played out time and time again in our own day.

As the train begins to move, Aaron Rhyne's stunning video projections take us through the heartland of Russia past miles and miles of wooded forests on a journey that finally ends in Paris. The video projections allow the story to straddle the line between stage and film in a kind of cross-over that also blurs the line between history and myth, giving the show a magical, fairytale quality that's quite stunning to behold, especially when Anya first sees the Eiffel Tower at the end of Act I.

From Czarist Russia and the subsequent revolution to the Roaring 20s in Paris where Russians like the Dowager Empress and her lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily (the hilarious power-belter Tari Kelly) live in exile, Anastasia tugs at your heart - and your funny bone. When Vlad takes it upon himself to arrange for Anya to meet her grandmother, he butters up his former flame, Lily, by way of a seductive dance that ends up being absolutely hysterical. Choreographer Peggy Hickey outdoes herself with this showstopper of a number as the old pair, pant and wheeze their way through the sensuously hilarious song, "The Countess and the Common Man."

Anastasia delights and the recently refurbished Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco is the perfect place to see this Broadway show. It's a gorgeous theatre (with parking and dining close by) but more importantly, the sound is crisp and clear (take it from an old college sound tech, it's really good) and the lighting is fantastic. Is Anya the hoped-for and long-lost princess Anastasia? Come see the show and find out!

Now thru September 29, 2019
Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

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