I could go on and on about the coincidental yet serendipitous timing of a pro-tsarist musical being staged on the heels of President Trump’s State of the Union address and impeachment acquittal.
Let’s, instead, side-step politics for a moment and focus on how “Anastasia,” currently on tour and at Playhouse Square, is the thoroughly entertaining musical theater equivalent of a theme-park adventure ride. But not, you know, Disneyland’s “The Mad Tea Party” or Universal Studio’s “Despicable Me.”
Premiering on Broadway in 2017, this stage adaptation of the 1997 animated movie of the same name quickly transports us from the glory days of imperial Russia in 1907 to the last days of the Romanovs amidst the turmoil of the revolutionary Bolshevik regime in 1917. We then jump forward 10 years, to 1927 Leningrad, where it is rumored that the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaevna Romanov, survived the assassination of her family and we are introduced to Anya (Lila Coogan), a destitute young woman with only a few, fleeting memories of her past.
Soon, Anya meets a handsome young conman, Dmitry (Jake Levy), and a lovable ex-aristocrat, Vlad Popov (Edward Staudenmayer), who hope to travel to Paris to deceive Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), into believing that Anya is Anastasia so to reap a sizable reward. Anya is pursued by a ruthless Soviet officer, Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), who must find and silence the girl because she is feeding the frenzy of idle rumor and, most importantly, because she might be an actual relic of the past.
The ride Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally takes us on leads to discovery after discovery that suggest Anya’s authenticity. This turns the quasi-fairytale found in the film into an adventure grounded in Russian history and a century-old mystery while still retaining all the romance and a touch of cartoonary when it comes to the depiction of some minor characters. Musical theater aficionados may also recognize traces of other shows in McNally’s creation of this one – including a very Javert-like Soviet officer, a Jack-Kelly-like young conman, an Eliza-like Anya and an Anatevka moment at the train station (“Stay, I Pray You”) when our heroes and others say goodbye to their homeland for the last time – all of which, intentional or not, turns what could be viewed as foreign into something overtly familiar.
Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens pile song upon song, nearly doubling the amount found in the film’s score, which reinforce each discovery with dramatic consequence (the best being the Act 1 closer, “Journey to the Past,” which is beautifully rendered by Coogan as Anya) or much needed comic relief (including the wonderfully silly “The Countess and the Common Man,” performed by Staudenmayer’s Vlad and Alison Ewing’s Countess Lily, former young lovers who reunite in Paris). Production numbers are chockfull of Peggy Hickey’s gorgeous and perfectly executed choreography.
But the real piling on is undertaken by director Darko Tresnjak and his designers, who make sure that very few visually stagnant moments occur on stage and everything is surrounded by scenic eye-candy and draped in Linda Cho’s spectacular costuming. Alexander Dodge’s detailed set pieces against Aaron Rhyne’s often animated projections under Donald Holder’s lighting create both cinematic grandeur and theatrical dimensionality rarely seen on the stage.
Still, the best moments in this musical are the few stagnant ones, where the only things being moved are our emotions courtesy of an exceptional cast of fully committed featured and ensemble players and the detailed and earnest acting they do through their singing.
If you have ever tried to cram everything into a day at Epcot or Cedar Point, you will recognize the sensation of being emotionally spent, sensory-overloaded and thoroughly entertained while leaving a performance of the touring “Anastasia.” This musical is exhilarating and exhausting.
Now, back to the real world, which is already in progress.