Gorgeous-looking 'Anastasia' Too Generic for Comfort

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday November 9, 2019

A scene from the national company of "Anastasia."
A scene from the national company of "Anastasia."  

Based on the Twentieth Century Fox films, the new musical "Anastasia" certainly has its pleasures, but doesn't quite reach the heights it strives for. With a book by Terrence McNally ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ("Ragtime" and the 1997 animated version of "Anastasia") there's a great pedigree here, but it all goes down a little too generically to have lasting impact.

The story follows a former Russian businessman named Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and his son and protégé Dmitry (Jake Levy) who find a girl they think could pass as the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia. Hoping to fool Anastasia's grandmother the Dowager Empress (Eloise Vaynshtok) both expect to be rewarded handsomely.

Anya (Lila Coogan) finds the men and is made to be a convincing Anastasia — especially since she has lost her memory and doesn't have any recollection of her childhood. For her, she wonders if maybe it could be true. So with the plan in place, the three begin their journey to Paris to see the Dowager. Along the way Dmitry and Anya will fall in love, and Vlad will seek out and find his lost love Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) who just happens to work for the Dowager.

There is a lot to appreciate here from a pitch-perfect portrayal and vocals by Coogan and wonderful support from Staudenmayer and Kelly, whose second act reunion is hilarious and heartfelt. The set design — for what it is — is gorgeous, but mostly because of the use of LED screens. While I'm not always a fan of these, the detail and color of the backgrounds are spectacular and lifelike and a first act number aboard a moving train is genius. From the soft falling of snow to the bridges of Paris, everything looks eye-poppingly good you almost forget there are limited physical sets on stage.

The drawbacks to this musical are the book and the songs. The book is so simple and light that there's not much suspense to the proceedings. The 70-minute first act has so much filler by way of extraneous musical numbers you find yourself wanting them to just get to Paris already. Once the three imposters team up there's not much emotionally or plot-wise going on. Thankfully, the two best songs are in this act: "Once Upon a December" and " Journey to the Past" — both from the animated musical.

There's a subplot about a Russian named Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) who wants to find the imposters and stop them and Anya from attempting to convince anyone she's the real Anastasia. The character isn't all that compelling and while Evans can certainly sing, the character's demeanor would be better suited in "Phantom of the Opera" or "Les Miserables."

The songs get better in Act Two, which is more compelling all around. A fun song about Paris ("Paris Holds the Key") is a great opener, and Countess Lily's "Land of Yesterday" is a showstopper, followed immediately by a second show-stopper with her old flame Vlad, "The Countess and the Common Man." This act is certainly more exciting and offers something fresh, not to mention the songs vary unlike the first act where it feels like it's overrun with ballads that sometimes sound too similar.

Still, there is enough here that will entertain theatre fans, but be warned, there are no fuzzy anthropomorphic animals or sorcerers with magic like the animated film, so the kiddies might get bored. For the older crowd there's enough dazzle that the mystery of Anastasia will still enchant.

"Anastasia" runs through November 17 at Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa. For tickets and more information, visit SCFTA.org

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.