BWW Review: ANASTASIA at Straz Center Tampa
Anastasia is a musical with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and a book by Terrence McNally. The show premiered on Broadway in April 2017 and was nominated for the Drama Desk award for Best Musical. It is based on the 1997 film of the same name, retaining 6 of the songs from the film and adding 16 new numbers for the stage. In the 1956 film, Ingrid Bergman garnered Best Actress in her role of Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the late Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Anastasia is based on the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, which claims that she evaded the execution of her family, while they were supposedly posing for a family picture.
In the Prologue, before leaving for Paris, grandmother, the Dowager Empress, gives Anastasia a music box as a parting gift "Once Upon a December". Act l opens 11 years later where a 17 year-old Anastasia is attending a ball with her family when the Bolsheviks invade their palace. As the family tries to escape, Anastasia searches for her precious music box. She is shot and presumed dead along with the rest of her family, "The Last Dance of the Romanovs".
Years later, an amnesiac orphan named Anya (Lila Coogan) a street sweeper, hoping to find her family runs into two con artists, Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and Dmitry (Stephen Brower). When they find out she has amnesia, they plot to take advantage of her likeness of Anastasia and make a profit from it. Anya (Lila Coogan), whose beauty mixed with a lack of memory make her the perfect counterfeit for the Tsarina. Reminiscent of My Fair Lady, the lady needs a bit of grooming, so the con men set out to refine her. While Anya is earnest in her hopes of finding her family Vlad and Dmitry hope to deceive and convince the Dowager Empress, Anastasia's Grandmother (Joy Franz) who is exiled in Paris. They prepare her to meet Dowager Empress before they all leave Russia for Paris. Their plot is reported to General Gleb Vaganov (Jason Michael Evans) the main antagonist of the musical adaptation, replacing a fictionalized Rasputin in that role. He sees the Romanov's eyes in Anya when she is called to his office. He feels she could be Anastasia and because of his feelings for her, she is dismissed. Now finally on their way to Paris at the train station, Count Ipolitov (Michael McCorry Rose) recognizes Anya as Anastasia and kisses her hand. As they board the train to Paris, Count Ipolitov leads a prayer of farewell to Russia ("Stay, I Pray You"). During the train ride, Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad think about what each hopes to gain in Paris. Anya hopes to find out that she is actually Anastasia, Dmitry desires money, and Vlad hopes to win back Countess Lily (Tari Kelly).
Act ll finds the three marveling at the sights of Paris, "Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart". Soon Vlad and Dmitry go off on their own and Anya visits Pont Alexandre lll, a bridge, named after Anastasia's grandfather. Anya feels a strong connection to it, "Crossing a Bridge". Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna reads many letters from Anastasia impersonators but gives up hope of finding her Anastasia, "Close the Door". Gleb soons arrives in Paris with orders to find and Anya - if she is indeed Anastasia. Lily, who works for the Dowager Empress is reunited with Vlad, who convinces her to let Anya meet the Empress at the upcoming ballet. Anya has a nightmare about the Romanov's execution, "A Nightmare". Dmitry consoles her by telling a story about how he bowed to Anastasia at a parade when he was a young boy. Anya remembers his gesture. They realize that Anya is the Grand Duchess Anastasia, "In a Crowd of Thousands". At the ballet, Vlad suspects that Anya and Dmitry are falling in love. During the ballet Lily introduces her to the Dowager Empress. Soon Anya leaves the meeting enraged, having learned from the Dowager Empress that Vlad and Dmitry intended to use her in their scheme for money. Upon her return to the hotel, Anya starts packing but is interrupted by the Dowager Empress, who has come to give her an opportunity. The Dowager Empress questions Anya about her past. Anya suddenly remembers the night that the Dowager Empress left her for Paris. When Anya produces the music box and sings the lullaby, the Dowager Empress finally realizes that Anya really is Anastasia, "Once Upon a December Reprise". When Anya finds out Dmitry never took the reward money for finding her, she decides to find him and tell him of her love for him but Gleb locks her in a room with him. He tries to shoot her but he can't. They call a truce. Anya finds Dmitry at the bridge. As they leave Paris, the spirits of her family members return to a ghostly dance at their palace.
Lila Googan as Anya is believable and her powerful vocals will win you over. She beautifully transforms from her street sweeper role into that of a royal young lady. She plays her part with an edgy charm, innocent, yet able to take care of herself. Even though she is unwittingly a part of a scheme, you so want her to be Anastasia. Joy Franz as the Dowager Empress is brilliant in her portrayal of a sad and bitter member of the Romanov family who has grown tired of so many imposters claiming to be her granddaughter Anastasia. She is very moving. Her voice is smooth and distinguished and her countenance is elegant and regal. Like Anastasia she can take care of herself and will have no one pull the wool over her eyes. Stephen Brower as Dmitry brought a gentle kindness to his role. Even though he was a con man, you never felt his heart was in it for the money as much as it was for Anya. Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad and Tari Kelly as Countess Lily added a Carol Burnett-ish style of humor to the story. Staudenmayer playing more the straight man to Kelly's humorous antics and over extenuated gestures. They were delightful to watch and Miss Kelly glowed in every scene she did. Jason Michael Evans as Gleb, the man tasked to kill Anya if it was proven she was Anastasia, embodied the torment of what he was charged to do with his love for Anastasia. Triple threat Michael McCorry Rose, playing the parts of Tsar Nicholas ll, Count Ipolitov and Count Gregory had his hands full playing three distinctly different characters and was more than up to the task to do each of them justice. As the Tsar he was majestic and debonair. I was particularly moved during his song, "Stay I Pray You", as Count Ipolitov. You can't miss those dreamy blue eyes or that amazing voice. I must give praise to Ashlee Dupré, Mark Mackillop, and Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr. for the perfect portrayal of a scene from the ballet Swan Lake. What an exquisite surprise.
Opulence abounded by scenic designer Alexander Dodge. Costumer Linda Cho brought Russian and Parisian styling to life. Lighting designer Donald Holder was put to the test with a myriad of scenery changes, inside and out. He didn't miss a thing. Aaron Rhyne's projections were the crown and glory of the show. The audience was treated a Russian Winter Palace to the Arc de Triomphe, to the Pont Alexandre lll bridge and so much more. I was captivated by the train sequence whose background moved in the direction the train car was being displayed. It was so real I almost got a bit of motion sickness. The orchestra under the direction of Conductor Lawrence Goldberg played lush orchestrations and a variety of slow and up-tempo numbers that beautifully undergirded each scene. There is a lot more going on in this production than I can note - ghostly dancing figures, fireworks display, bombing and fires at the palace. You really need to see this show for yourself to appreciate how this story is brought to the stage.
Ever since I heard about the story of Anastasia, I always wanted it to be true. For some reason it was important to me that she really did survive this brutal attack that took her family. It was so intriguing to think that she gained her memory and found her place. I think I have seen every version of this story. Wouldn't you know it, as recent as last year, the Smithsonian reported that DNA analysis confirmed the authenticity of the Romanov's remains. Including Anastasia's.
To learn more about the Straz Center and all of their upcoming events visit www.strazcenter.org.