Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical is based on the animated feature, the live action 1956 film, and the legend of whether the young Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia was actually executed, along with her family, or if she somehow miraculously survived. The stage musical's plot introduces us to Anya, the young woman who can't remember anything about her past. She finds herself the center of a scheme by two con men she encounters, the young and charming Dmitry, who we learn had a brief encounter with the real Anastasia when they were children, and the scheming but lovable Vlad. They plan to leverage her resemblance to Anastasia, while educating her on the facts of Anastasia's family, to get the reward money from Anastasia's grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who has all but given up hope that her long-lost granddaughter survived. Tension and uncertainty comes in the form of General Gleb Vaganov, whose father was involved in the execution of Anastasia's family and who is given orders to follow Anya and kill her if she is indeed the real Anastasia.
The book, music and lyrics for the stage adaptation are from the three individuals who worked on Ragtime and, while the final result is not as successful as that Tony winning show, it still has many catchy songs, intriguing moments and characters, and a swiftly moving plot full of hope. Terrence McNally's book sticks to realism and wisely eliminates the mystical elements of the animated film and its cartoony villain Rasputin, although some of the coincidences in the plot come off as slightly contrived. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) wrote a half dozen songs for the animated film and added more than a dozen more songs for the stage version, including ballads that flesh out the characters, comical duets, and love songs. Even though very few of the new songs are on par with the film's Oscar-nominated "Journey to the Past," they are all well written and move the plot along or add to the character development. However, there are a few abrupt shifts in tone, particularly the comic moments in the secondary plot that stop the momentum of Anya discovering out the truth about her past, and some reprises of songs that pad the show a bit. Also, while the musical is much darker than the 1997 film, it's more realistic in both showing the impact of the tragedy of the Romanov murders and depicting the political tensions of the period.
The creative aspects are all carried over from the Broadway production and the previous Equity tour of the show. Darko Tresnjak's original direction (re-created for the tour by Sarah Hartmann) makes great use of Alexander Dodge's scenic design and Aaron Rhyne's impressive, three-dimensional, absorbing projections to keep the show moving along at a brisk pace with the stunning backdrops creating cinematic transitions that make scene changes virtually instantaneous while also helping balance out, somewhat, the occasional and sudden shifts in tone. Linda Cho's costumes are gorgeous and the lighting design by Donald Holder also adds nice touches and transitions. The choreography by Peggy Hickey (re-created for the tour by Bill Burns) delivers effective ensemble numbers as well as a brief snippet from Swan Lake.
The cast is very good. Veronica Stern delivers a touching, layered performance of Anya, a young woman who is strong enough to take care of herself but is also vulnerable, stubborn, and confused due to not knowing who she is or much about her past. Stern's singing voice is warm and lush and she delivers moving performances of "Journey to the Past" and her many other songs.
Willem Butler and Bryan Seastrom make a winning duo as the lovable con men Dmitry and Vlad. While they may first be greedy and self-centered by using Anya to further their scheme to cash in on the reward by passing her off as Anastasia, once they begin to realize Anya may be actual royalty, both characters show trust and honesty. The two actors have rich singing voices and good comic timing, and Butler and Stern create a believable romantic tension.
Gerri Weagraff is appropriately regal, stern and commanding as the Dowager Empress. Christian McQueen is menacing and powerful, yet also conflicted and tormented as Vlad, and his strong, impressive voice adds gravitas to his solos. As the Countess Lily who acts as the Dowager Empress' assistant, Madeline Raube is fun and witty; she and Seastrom deliver a comical highlight with their duet, "The Countess and the Common Man." The members of the ensemble play numerous parts, including members of the royal family and poor Russian peasants and soldiers, with ease. Lauren Teyke delivers am impressive ballet solo in the Swan Lake segment.
Anastasia may have a few unnecessary moments and songs that slow the thrust of the main plot down slightly, but it also has gorgeous creative elements that provide depth, visual pops and a cinematic sweep to the plot. The touring cast embody and bring their characters vibrantly to life, and when combined with the impressive creative aspects and clean direction it results in a crowd pleasing musical that shines a light on this historical rumor and the legend of just what happened to the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.
Anastasia runs through May 7, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 W Adams Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.americantheatreguild.com/phoenix/. For information on the tour, visit anastasiathemusical.com/tour/.
Book by Terrence McNally