The touring Broadway production pulls out all the stops to offer a magic night of theatre
By the time the curtains closed at the end of Anastasia, I felt like we’d pretty much seen everything a modern Broadway musical can deliver:
Fascinating sets that melded physical elements with stunning projections and light effects. Extraordinary costumes that pushed to “11” the amount of pomp and frippery the designers could hang on every character. A wonderful live pit orchestra playing the music of Theatre Hall of Famers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical, Lucky Stiff). A book by Terrence McNally, no less.
And the cast, a marvelous cast led by vocal powerhouse Lila Coogan in the title role. If it’s a big musical you’re looking for, this final show of the Denver Center Attractions season is hard to top, and the packed house at the Buell Theatre opening night was on its feet as the last note ended to show its appreciation.
The mystery of Anastasia
Based on the real life of the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, Anastasia blends fact with fiction to tell a story that starts in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1918 with the murder of the entire Romonav family by Bolsheviks. But, while history tells us the 8-year-old Anastasia was killed along with her family, whispered rumors suggested she got away. That legend was captured in several films, with the biggest being an animated version in 1997.
In the new musical, some of the songs from that film are included (“Learn to Do It,” “Paris Holds the Key” and several others). If you’re looking for the evil Rasputin, who served as Anastasia’s undead nemesis in the Don Bluth film, he’s not in this show. Instead, the son of one of the soldiers who participated in the 1918 massacre is charged with the task of pursuing Anastasia to Paris and finishing the job.
It’s a more nuanced approach than the pure evil of Rasputin. Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) is filled with revolutionary fervor and a strong sense of duty. But he’s also a young man who seems more interested in getting in the grand duchess’s drawers than, you know, shooting her in the face.
The plot is essentially the same besides that: A pair of con-men plot to find a fake Anastasia to dupe the girl’s grandmother living in Paris into believing her favorite granddaughter is still alive, thus securing reward money. When they unwittingly recruit the real, amnesiac Anastasia (who’s called Anya), the truth of her birthright is slowly revealed.
Anastasia has a number of familiar elements that flip a lot of different plot switches. There’s a Pygmalion-like section where the two con-men, Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and Dmitry (Stephen Brower) work to refine the disheveled street sweeper they’ve come across into a grand duchess. There’s an escape from Russia and a fun train trip to Paris that hits the adventure buttons. And then, of course, the magical transformation of the poor and desperate girl on the street into an opulently dressed member of royalty and, presumably, about to inherit a golden coach full of money from the Dowager Empress (a solid Joy Franz).
As Vlad, the older con man hoping to find his own lost love in Paris, Staudenmayer is tremendous. With a gravely baritone, a ready wink and a wiry body he deploys with great comic effect, Vlad’s character is charged with keeping the story from getting too somber. And when he pairs up with Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) in Paris, the two of them form a comedic duo that generates a surprising number of laughs for a show about, you know, murdered children and all. Their first number together (“The Countess and the Common Man”) upon reuniting is in a class of its own — a clever, hormonally charged celebration of naughtiness that skates just barely above the point where moms and dads might be shielding the kids’ eyes in the audience. It’s a hoot.
Things get more complicated when Dmitri starts falling in love with Anya, and he starts to think that all the duping and conning isn’t really in line with what he’s feeling. Brower is excellent in this role, able to morph from mercenary street scamp to a morally intact man intent on doing the right thing.
A grand affair
While all of the requisite pieces for creating a spectacular musical are all in place here, it’s worth noting the level of stagecraft that elevates this show beyond what it might have been even a decade ago. The scenic, lighting and digital projection design are a performance unto themselves, with seamless scene changes that merge the physical with elements created through light and projection. We are taken on a train ride, we go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, we’re transported into palaces, dingy streets and opera houses in the blink of an eye. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where the scenery ends and the projection begins. The snow looks real, the fires, the forests, all of it is rendered so well as to transport the audience deep into the world of the play.
It all adds up to a visually stunning show which, atop everything else, leaves the audience in awe and appreciation of the extraordinary amount of work and talent that went into this show.
It’s one not to miss, and one that’s bound to please just about anyone of any age.