People love a good mystery, and one of the most persistent mysteries of the 20th century was whether or not Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova survived the murder of her entire family in Russia in 1917. Rumors that she was still alive persisted years after the event, which resulted in a number of movies that dealt in such speculation, most recently the 1997 animated movie Anastasia.
It is that property (and the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner) from which springs the stage musical Anastasia, featuring music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the team that also did the Oscar-nominated original songs for the film. What might disappoint some is that the theater production does not retain the cartoonish nature of the movie; gone are popular characters like Bartok the albino bat and Rasputin the sorcerer.
Instead, Flaherty and Ahrens, working with book writer Terrence McNally, went a “more sophisticated” route, focusing instead on the political and socioeconomic aspect of the story. That choice may have been more accurate and serve up more drama, but in reality, it didn’t make for a better outcome.
The beginning skips quickly over the tragic events of 1917 to 10 years later, with the sole surviving member of the family, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), now living in Paris and holding out hope that her granddaughter Anastasia is out there somewhere. Any number of people are more than willing to try and dupe her into believing that they have found Anastasia, including Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), who audition women to pretend to be the Duchess.
This search leads them to Anya (Lila Coogan), a woman who suffers from amnesia but who seems to remember enough small details about her past life that she could possibly be Anastasia. Over the course of the production, the trio makes their way to Paris, with Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a member of the Bolshevik revolution and whose father coincidentally participated in the Romanov execution, hot on their trail.
Much here is unclear about the characters, plot, and songs, leading to a feeling that a lot of it was extraneous, bulking up the story instead of adding anything meaningful. The motivations of characters like Vlad and Gleb are mysterious and never truly explored, making their inclusion mostly unnecessary.
Unsurprisingly, the holdover songs from the film — like “Once Upon a December,” which pops up multiple times, and first-act closer “Journey to the Past" — are the most memorable. The only other song that stands out does so because it’s at odds with the rest of the show.
After a mostly dramatic first act, the production introduces a new character, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly), who, out of nowhere, rekindles a romance with Vlad. The two celebrate finding each other again in the song “The Countess and the Common Man,” a broad and lengthy number that has absolutely no relationship to anything else in the show.
The production succeeds the most in its technical categories. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge all but eschews actual sets in favor of massive, high-def projections done by Aaron Rhyne. These are often awe-inducing, as images of a river, a mansion, or the Paris landscape, while not photo-realistic, provoke a sense of wonder. Likewise, the costumes by Linda Cho are immaculate, providing a lift to the actors that makes up for what the production otherwise lacks.
Coogan is by far the star of the musical, offering acting and singing skills that outstrip those of her co-stars. Brower and Staudenmeyer are given the most opportunities to shine among the supporting cast, but neither manages to impress. The pointless inclusion of the character Gleb is only heightened by Evans’ distracting acting style, which seems over-the-top even for a theater actor.
The adaptation of pre-existing movies into theater productions often seems like nothing more than a cash grab that plays on the audience’s nostalgia. With Anastasia, however, they limit the wistfulness, striking off in a new bland direction that does nothing to enhance the property’s legacy.
The national tour of Anastasia, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park, runs through March 3. The show also will have a run at Bass Hall, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth, May 28-June 2.