THEATER REVIEW: “Anastasia” @ Playhouse Square by Roy Berko

Through Sun 2/23

Anastasia, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally, based on the 1997 film of the same name, is now on stage at Plauyhouse Square’s Connor Palace Theatre as part of the Key Bank Broadway series. The musical, which opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in April, 2017, ran for over 800 performances.

Is she or isn’t she? Ever since the early 20th century and the overthrow and deaths of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his court, there has been a question of whether one of the Romanoff children weathered the family holocaust.   Books, films and plays have been written with various theories about the “Anastasia” rumors.

Anastasia looks at one of the many theories of whether Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, could have escaped the execution. In this version of the tale, Anya, a young lady with amnesia, falls prey to two con men who wish to take advantage of her lack of clear memory and plant seeds of information that will allow her to go before the Dowager Empress Maria, who was in Paris when the Russian Revolution took place, and is one of the few people who could identify the real Anastasia, to prove her royal identity.

The saga starts in 1906 when the Dowager Empress, who is leaving for France, gives Anastasia a music box as a parting gift. In quick order we flash forward to 1917 when the Bolsheviks invade the palace and kill the family.

It is now 1927 and Gleb Vaganov, a general for the Bolsheviks, and the son of one of the hordes that killed off the Czar’s family, announces that the once-glorious Saint Petersburg has been renamed Leningrad, and has a promising bright future. Present are Dimitry, an ex-member of the Imperial Court, and Vlad, a charming young scoundrel, who decide that they are going to try to get money from the aging dowager by “returning” Anastasia to her.

The duo selects Anya as their “Anastasia” and, much like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, set out to make the transition. And, much like Eliza, Anya has an “I Think She Got It,” moment, when supposed thoughts from the past, including her ability to speak fluent French, become present realities.

This, by the way, isn’t the only script segment that harks to other musical theater pieces. There’s Anya learning to dance in a gender reversal of “Shall We Dance?” from The King and I, when the girl learns to both waltz and polka. And that’s not the end of musical theater parallels either. Gleb, who is obsessed with finishing the work of his father by killing off the rest of the Romanoffs, tracks after Anya, much like Javier’s maniacal hunts for Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

A train escape from Russia, a journey to Paris, a developing love affair between Dimity and Anya, a series of Anastasia examinations by the Dowager Empress, some humorous scenes between Countess Lily, the Dowager’s lady-in-waiting, and Vlad, a confrontation between Gleb and Anya, and a revelation regarding the girl’s identity, bring the musical to a close.

Is Anya Anastasia? (Sorry, no spoiler alert here!)

The touring company’s production is stunning. Aaron Rhyne’s projection designs bring the art of set construction and setting images to a new dimension. In a simple set of arches, the audience is visually taken from a sumptuous palace, to an explosive revolution, to the streets of Leningrad, on a harrowing train ride, to the Eiffel Tower, and to the inside of the Paris Opera House. It’s worth going to see the show just for the special effects and the sumptuous costumes, as designed by Linda Cho, as well as Donald Holder’s lighting and Peter Hylenski’s sound designs.

The cast is excellent. Petite, lovely and talented Lila Coogan sparkles as Anya. She has a lovely voice and a pleasing stage presence. Her renditions of “In My Dreams,” “A Secret She Kept” and “Everything to Win” were all well sung.

Jake Levy nicely develops Dimitry as the rogue who falls in love with Anya. His version of “Everything to Win” is very well vocalized. Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad) delights with his comic abilities. His scenes with the equally talented Alison Ewing (Countess Lily) are comic show-stoppers.

Jason Michael Evans could have been a little more cunning as Gleb. As is, he was villain light. His “Still” and “Land of Yesterday (reprise)” were well-sung and interpreted.

Stephen Flaherty’s music, which spans traditional Russian sounds, French musical tones and typical Broadway lush measures, is encompassing and well-performed by the pit orchestra.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: There is an adage in theater that after seeing a musical, one should not leave talking sets and costumes. In the case of the touring company of Anastasia, however, that’s exactly what the audience was doing. Yes, this is not a great musical. The plot is obvious and the music pleasant, not memorable.   However, the production values are outstanding and the cast excellent, so, all in all, what we have is a pleasant, if not spectacular, evening of theater.

Anastasia runs through Sun 2/23.  To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org

[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association]

 

 

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