As the lights came up to reveal the shining splendor of the Imperial Palace, director Darko Tresnjak’s “Anastasia” truly was a “Journey to the Past.”
Based on the 1997 Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures animated film of the same name, the musical tells the tale of Anya (Lila Coogan), an orphaned young woman determined to discover her past after suffering from amnesia as a child. Set during the 1920s in the years following the fall of the Russian empire and the deaths of the Romanov royal family, her quest for self-discovery leads her to the streets of Petersburg, Russia. Pursued by Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a ruthless Soviet officer determined to stop her, she meets the charming ex-aristocrat Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and the dashingly lovable conman Dmitry (Stephen Brower). After learning the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) is offering a reward for the safe return of her long-lost granddaughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, Vlad and Dmitry convince Anya that she could be the missing royal. Desperate to find her home, love, and family, Anya agrees to meet the Dowager Empress in Paris in hopes of being recognized.
Opening the show is “The Last Dance of the Romanovs,” a graceful and elegant musical sequence that wordlessly expresses the luxury and grandeur of Tsar Nicholas II (Michael McCorry Rose) and his family as the Romanovs swirls around in dreamy gowns and decorated royal suits covered in luxurious gems. The blissful and nostalgic dance number is a fierce competitor when stacked against the greats of musical theater ballroom dance sequences, including Roger and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”
As the revolution begins, the dream is shattered as lighting designer Donald Holder, projection designer Aaron Rhyne and scenic designer Alexander Dodge prove their impeccable talent. The royal purples and rich pinks of the Imperial Palace are slashed away in favor of the angry reds that mark the beginning of the revolution and the slaughter of the Romanov line.
Fast forward 10 years and the city of Petersburg is aghast with rumors that the princess Anastasia may be alive. Compared to the glistening riches of the palace, the people living in the city are forced to confront the new reality of their Communist society, only fueled by the gossip Anastasia’s return. It is here that the familiar story is flipped around. Rather than learning the life and secrets of the royal family in mere days on their journey to Paris, Vlad and Dmitry teach Anya for months leading up to their departure, as songs like “Learn to Do It” and “Journey to the Past” are given a new timeline.
While this altered timeline takes some getting used to, Anya’s ballad “Once Upon a December” is still the production’s shining jewel. Coogan’s clear and crystal voice creates an alternative reality– one in which Anya is loved and wanted. The city streets disappear as Coogan spins tales of a dream world full graceful shadowy figures and the faded memories of the royal family bathed in blue. As the song fades, so too does the palace, slowly transforming back into the streets of Petersburg.
Brower is perfectly charming as Dmitry proves he hasn’t lost that boyish mischief as he attempts to pull off the “greatest con in history.” He acts with lovable cheekiness as the musical version of the story offers a more detailed backstory for Anya and Dmitry’s relationship. As they spend more time together, their petty squabbles turn to friendship and love, culminating in their emotionally charged duet, “In a Crowd of Thousands.”
As Act I closes with perhaps the most anticipated song in the show, Coogan did not disappoint in her rendition of “Journey to the Past,” and sang with as much love and fiery passion one could have hoped for. It was here that the altered timeline of events came together and made sense in the context of this adapted production. Although originally sung dancing through the snowy hills, Coogan took your heart with her as her excitement and fear brought her to Paris, basking in the glow of soon-to-be realized dreams and the light of the Eiffel Tower.
Act II opens just as strong as the first with the elaborate and flashy number “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart).” As Vlad, Dmitry, and Anya explore all that Paris has to offer, Rhyne once again creates scenes that change as fast as the beat of the music and the lights of 1920s Paris nightlife.
Alongside gorgeous sets, Act II brings with it more intricate plotlines for the production’s other characters, including Evans and his sexy show-stopping vocals. Serving as a more stoic replacement to the film’s villain Rasputin and his talking bat Bartok, Gleb follows Anya to Paris, where his inner turmoil is revealed. Torn between duty to his country and his conscience, Gleb is forced to swallow his feelings for Anya. Although he is supposed to be the villain, Evans acts with a powerful energy that makes him impossible to hate, instead of invoking sympathy as he spares Anya’s life.
In contrast to the perfectly dull and drab colors of communist Russia, Paris is full of glitz and sparkle, mirroring that of the Imperial Palace. As Vlad and the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) rekindle their long-ago romance, they provide a perfectly timed example of comic relief following Franz’s moving ballad “Close the Door.” As the phantom of Little Anastasia (Victoria Bingham) haunts her memory, the Dowager Empress dreams of what once was in heart-achingly beautiful performance.
Although Anya learns the truth about her birth and reclaims her title as the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, her reunion with her grandmother is short lived as she disappears off into the streets of Paris, finally embracing love with Dmitry. While still a beautiful and graceful ending, it was mildly disappointing for those of us that like endings wrapped up with a bow (or in this case, a tiara). Instead, the show closes with a moment that more closely resembles the truth of Russian history, lending to the old mystery of whether the real Anastasia truly did die with her family or somehow managed to escape.
Regardless of plot, no production would be complete without artistically planned and gracefully executed costumes. But costume designer Linda Cho deserves infinite praise as her jaw-dropping costumes become a character of their own. In a production full of a majestic combination of royal Russian riches and modern Paris glamor, the iconic blue gown Anya wears to watch the Russian ballet is made of the stuff of dreams. Paired with long white gloves and an endless train, this scene was worth the wait.
Although the musical is centered around the heavy subject matter of familial loss and the rise of communism, the combination of modern theater and a brilliantly talented cast and crew has created a dazzling musical out of the beloved film. “Anastasia” truly is a combination of love, courage and hope as the lost princess lives again.
Anastasia will run at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through November 25, 2018.
Note: Content is my own but originally appeared on The Writer's Bloc in 2018 and has since been slightly updated for this platform.