Theater Review: ANASTASIA (National Tour)

by Tony Frankel on October 14, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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First came the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered in 1918 just after the Bolshevik Revolution, most likely by Vladimir Lenin’s secret police. Then came the rumors that she was still alive. Then came the imposters, keeping alive one of the most popular historical mysteries of the 20th century. Although it has been proven through DNA testing of bodies discovered in a mass grave that Anastasia was indeed killed, the story of What if she did survive? remains a popular notion in books and films.

In 1997, a very decent movie — 20th Century Fox’s first animated film — came along retelling the story of Anastasia, beginning with her childhood in 1916 Russia. In the musical film, Rasputin curses the Romanovs, and little Anastasia is separated from her grandmother, the Dowager Empress. After growing up in an orphanage, she emerges as a young woman called Anya. The amnesiac Anya, heir to the Romanov fortune, encounters entrepreneurs who seek an Anastasia look-alike in hopes of collecting a reward in Paris from the aged Dowager Empress. Despite demonic interference from Rasputin, the three travel to Paris where another problem awaits: the Dowager Empress is now skeptical of the parade of impostors.

When the composing team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens took some of their whimsical tunes to Broadway, they brought on their Ragtime co-creator Terrence McNally to adapt the screenplay. He kept the story about the same, including the dashing rapscallion love interest, Dmitry, but dropped the sneering villain, his sorcery and the animal sidekick, a talking bat. He even added some moments that steer this family-oriented musical into some grisly territory (the new villain, Gleb, is a general for the Bolsheviks who receives orders to kill Anya), but the National Tour of the Broadway production (which closed last March 31 after 808 performances) proves that they’re mere stabs at maturity because everything else is so broadly convivial, and, well, cartoonish. And yet — and this is a big “yet” — even this so-so musical outshines nearly all of the crap parading as the Best of Broadway. It’s clear that this kind of anesthesia is just swell to patrons who are sick of the nightly news.

Ahrens and Flaherty have kept the good earworm songs from the film: “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past” (which is now the big Act I closer), and added some fairly good ones: The anthem “The Neva Flows” and a mournful last goodbye to the motherland, “Stay, I Pray You” (which made me miss “Anatevka” from Fiddler on the Roof more than said motherland). The rest is fairly forgettable filler.

One of the musical’s redeeming qualities is a comical couple with a past: con man Vlad (Dmitry’s partner-in-crime) and Countess Lily, who looks after the Dowager Empress in Paris. The physical comedy and their raunchy duet, “The Countess and the Common Man,” easily receives the biggest laughs and applause of the night. The problem is that their joviality is incongruous with the period drama (McNally is far more successful with comedy than drama anyway).

Director Darko Tresnjak seems to have gotten what he wanted out of the material, which lies in a sort of limbo between source material and alterations, and between broad comedy and historical drama. In theory, the musical has every element of a successful show: A talented and abundant cast of more than two dozen actors; Linda Cho’s gorgeous Tony-winning period costumes, Peggy Hickey’s choreography, neatly shifting gears from elegant ballroom dancing to the Swan Lake ballet to excessively slapstick maneuvers; Aaron Rhyne’s brilliantly beautiful projections (which, situated behind the 3-D proscenium set nonetheless look like wallpaper on my laptop); and a pre-existing property with a built-in audience.

In execution, however, the book’s odd tonal shifts and shoulder-shrugging score keep this from being a great musical. It’s not a flop but I didn’t flip. (Which doesn’t mean it won’t be stopping in some grand palace near you for years.) But it will always suffer from an identity crisis, just like all of those Anastasia impostors.

photos by Matthew Murphy

national tour
at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until October 27, 2019
for tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit Pantages
tour continues through 2020
for dates and cities, visit Anastasia

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