Twentieth Century Fox produced the 1997 film that serves as the basis for the musical Anastasia, which stopped at the Academy of Music as part of a national tour. Yet I wouldn’t blame you if you assumed this slick, serviceable adaptation was the provenance of Disney.
Like many of the screen-to-stage vehicles shepherded by that company that have dominated Broadway over the past 20 years, this tale of a winsome amnesiac who may or may not be a lost Russian tsarina coasts on sumptuous spectacle without achieving much depth.
A fascinating story
Too bad, because the story that inspired the proceedings remains among the most fascinating in history. After the Bolshevik Revolution established the USSR, rumors swirled that the Tsar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, had escaped the slaughter that befell much of the royal lineage. (She didn’t, as confirmed by modern-day DNA testing.) Several women attempted to pass themselves off as the vanished princess—most notably Anna Anderson, whose story inspired the 1956 film that won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar.
The musical—with a libretto by Terrence McNally and score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the creative team behind Ragtime—doesn’t dramatize Anderson’s story, although the Bergman movie is listed as an influence, along with its animated cousin. Instead, it tells of Anya (Lila Coogan), a streetsweeper whose lack of memory (and abundance of beauty) make her a perfect stand-in for Anastasia Romanov. Grifters Vlad Popov (Edward Staudenmayer) and Dmitry (Stephen Brower) set about regally styling her in hopes of bamboozling the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), exiled in Paris.
Sweep and romanticism
The story doesn’t lack for sweep or romanticism, as realized in the opulent physical production by scenic designer Alexander Dodge, costumer Linda Cho, and lighting designer Donald Holder. Aaron Rhyne’s projections evoke everything from the Winter Palace to the Arc de Triomphe—albeit with the occasional crudeness of a theme-park attraction. But those coarse elements feel of a piece with the musical itself, which achieves the verisimilitude of a bottle of Russian salad dressing.
The first act moves from the kind of let-them-eat-cake grandeur that makes you giddy for the guillotine to grey-tinged Soviet suffering, with comrades fighting over cans of beans. The characters who populate the stage emerge in similarly one-dimensional strokes. Dmitry, we learn, may be a secret Romanov sympathizer—though in Brower’s bright-eyed performance, he seems closer to a contemporary pop star than anything else. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ruthless party apparatchik Gleb (played by the intense but pitch-challenged Jason Michael Evans) harbors passionate feelings for Anya.
This sets up a love triangle that’s never fully realized, as the creative team introduces dozens of plot threads that merely slow the action down. And any semblance of a cohesive narrative disappears in the second act, which moves the proceedings to Paris. In its place, we get the luxurious world of Russian émigrés who escaped slaughter, complete with a dumb-show of Swan Lake and a spirited dance number that has the gentry doing the Charleston between sips of champagne.
The show contains moments that entertain on their own, like the winningly romantic pas-de-deux between Vlad and his former flame Countess Lily (Tari Kelly, channeling Carol Burnett), who now serves as the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting. But under Darko Tresnjak’s generally smudgy direction, it doesn’t coalesce into coherent storytelling—and as a result, we care little about the show’s emotional center.
That would—or should—be the question of whether Anya really is Anastasia and whether the Dowager Empress will accept her as kin. By the time that plotline wraps itself up neatly in the musical’s final scenes, I already felt myself thoroughly checked out. It didn’t help that Coogan, who boasts a powerful but often unwieldy voice, rarely spoke a line if she could scream it. Or that Franz, a veteran of Sondheim musicals on Broadway, delivers all the hauteur of a Midwestern grandma overseeing a bake sale.
The creators suggest that Anya’s true identity matters little—what she represents to the people around her is the actual point. To me, she represents the empty spectacle that’s lately come to dominate musical theater.
What, When, Where
Anastasia. By Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty; Darko Tresnjak directed. Broadway Philadelphia. Through April 14, 2019, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or by emailing [email protected].