I have spent a lot of time thinking about musical theater during this holiday break, especially as our current decade nears its end. As a decade-long, and will-be lifelong lover of musical theater, I often catch myself ruminating on productions I saw in the past. I have recently been reconsidering the touring production of “Anastasia” I saw when it passed through San Francisco in September 2019; the tour is currently in Toronto by the way, if anyone needs a break from America’s current political theater. I felt some cognitive dissonance when I saw the show, and this feeling germinated over time. I previously admired the Broadway production (which I may have accidentally spied on by viewing a now-nonexistent YouTube bootleg recording). The current touring production, however, doesn’t fully uphold the stylistic merit of its Broadway predecessor. Perhaps my online wanderings conned me into believing the original Broadway production was better than it actually was, but I choose to believe the former.
In “Anastasia” the musical, protagonist Anya, who suffers from amnesia, encounters a music box her grandmother had gifted her many years prior. This music box helps Anya untangle and reclaim her lost memories. In the Broadway production, Anya unlocks the music box by winding it twice and then clicking a secret latch. The touring production literally lacks the extra click whenever the music box is successfully opened. Though this detail is neither overt nor necessary, the extra click imbues the already enigmatic music box with just a little more magic. This small discrepancy perfectly embodies my qualms with the “Anastasia” tour. Though the touring production is beautiful and entertaining in its own right, some aspects of the production lack the extra click, or spark of magic, that the Broadway staging contained. This especially regards some lackluster acting choices made in the first act. The production value of the “Anastasia” tour would have been greatly enhanced had it featured more nuanced details that were clearly within the musical’s realm of aesthetic possibility.
The stage musical “Anastasia” premiered on Broadway in 2016 with a book by Terrence McNally and music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. It is based on the 1997 animated film of the same name. Like the film, the musical’s narrative is inspired by the legend of the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The legend characterizes Anastasia as the only Romanov princess who may have escaped her family’s execution, making Anastasia’s ties to Imperial Russia a potential threat to Soviet control. As intended, the narrative and style of the stage musical is more mature than the film, featuring new songs, deeper character development and a truer-to-life Bolshevik general as the primary antagonist instead of the film’s magically portrayed Rasputin.
The greatest success of the stage musical is indeed its music. Though contemporary, its nostalgia-filled melodies feel rooted in history, tradition and cultural reverence. The collection of songs are insolubly interconnected, yet feature a host of musical styles. Within the evening, the lavish orchestra produces waltzes, passionate solo songs, big band dance numbers and sweeping anthems. As beloved by fans of the film, the stage musical maintains such iconic songs as “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past” and “Paris Holds the Key.” However, the musical now features new standout songs including “In My Dreams,” “My Petersburg” and “Quartet at the Ballet.” One of the best and most underappreciated musical moments is the haunting “Stay, I Pray You,” in which Anya (Lila Coogan), her newfound buddies Dmitry (Stephen Browner) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and other extraneous travelers take a moment to appreciate their homeland before boarding a one-way train to Paris. This musical reverie is spearheaded by Count Ipolitov (Brad Greer), who arguably steals the first act with his crystalline, classically-trained and emotionally-filled baritone, even though he isn’t featured at any other point in the musical.
Similar to “Stay, I Pray You,” “Quartet at the Ballet” is also an underappreciated musicalized scene. It is successful due to emotionally-charged vocal performances and impressive displays of classical dance prowess. Clashing narratives, a medley of reprised tunes and captivating dramatic irony make the number particularly climactic, especially since Anya, Dmitry, Anya’s grandmother the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) and Anya’s Soviet pursuer Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) are all located in the same location for the first time. Additionally, “Quartet at the Ballet” features a professional-grade ballet interlude reminiscent of “Swan Lake” in which the primary soloist victoriously executes 16 fouettés. The inclusion of classical ballet interludes in musical theater has long since been de-conventionalized, so it is exciting to see this type of sequence reinserted into a contemporary iteration of the form. However, “Quartet at the Ballet” also offers an example of one of the tour’s failings. In the ballet, two male dancers of equal stature vie for the swan and a Black dancer was cast as the villainous of the two. This decision feels especially charged, since the production hugely lacks performers of color and every star-vehicle character is played by a White actor. This casting choice perpetuates damaging sentiments and histories and could even be interpreted as a micro-aggression on behalf of the casting team.
Unlike the ballet, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) is impeccably cast and she easily steals the second act. In her first big number, “Land of Yesterday,” Kelly energetically dances and powerfully belts the song yet never seems to be out of breath. Her unfaltering performance is especially impressive given her older age, which she intelligently uses as the impetus for her comedy. In “The Countess and the Common Man,” Kelly and Staudenmayer hilariously perform a love duet a younger couple wouldn’t have any trouble performing, but the tactful enhancement of Kelly and Staudenmayer’s physical inabilities leaves the audience giddily giggling.
Though Kelly’s interpretation of Lily wholly satisfies, some other lead characters don’t evoke as much interest as their original Broadway counterparts. Jason Michael Evans as Gleb performs multiple vocally stunning solos, and his tone and style is almost identical to that of Gleb’s originator, Ramin Karimloo. At first, Evans expertly chooses to find impact in stillness. However, this tactic doesn’t age well throughout the performance and Evans’ repeated choice to be stagnant while singing is disappointing. His character experiences intense growth throughout the evening, but those internal changes aren’t as overt as they could have been within his soliloquies. Inversely, Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad is consistently interesting, but he is plagued with messy diction and an occasional impulse to use a goofy operatic voice that collects cheap laughs. These two points of technical weakness distract from the truly funny and clever aspects of his acting performance.
Unlike Evans and Staudenmayer, who exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses throughout the evening, Stephen Brower and Lila Coogan (portraying Dmitry and Anya respectively) appear to undergo an intervention during intermission, after which their performances are markedly improved. When both characters are singularly motivated to leave Russia in the first act, Brower and Coogan play similar actions which results in some flatness. But once the story travels to Paris, both actors find new depths of feeling and likability in their characters. I wish this wasn’t the case, especially for Anya’s narrative arc.
The “Anastasia” franchise gained notoriety for being blatantly more feminist than its counterparts that center leading women around romance-driven storylines. Anya, unlike many fictionalized princesses, is not one who needs saving. She is tough and unwilling to sacrifice her personal goals. Anya is not looking to be empowered, but rather is empowered to fight for her own self-actualization. But unfortunately, Coogan’s Anya lands as wafty and scared rather than defiant. And these attitudes are most present when Anya needs to uplift and add fire to the story while navigating a dull and repressive Russia. Though Coogan’s Anya hugely discovers her power and voice by the end of the story, Anya should be imbued with more strength throughout. Regardless, Coogan’s clear voice, Pygmalion-like transformation and bright-eyed optimism will inspire both children and adults alike.
Individual performances aside, the visually appealing group numbers scattered throughout the piece provide welcome moments of beauty and cheese that only the musical theater genre could provide. The glamorous waltzing in “Once Upon a December” especially highlights Linda Cho’s period-appropriate Edwardian costume design that is both stylistically expected and desired for a show of this type. In other songs like “Paris Holds the Key,” the ensemble hikes up their skirts to participate in a quintessential roaring 1920’s party sequence featuring multiple Charleston variations, cartwheels, jazz hands and thoroughly modern bobbed haircuts. This number perfectly sets the tone for a more colorful, heartwarming and pleasurable second act.
“Paris Holds the Key” is well-supported by one of the musical’s most consistently successful design elements: its zestful and ever-changing projections. Designer Aaron Rhyne’s projections are comparative to Disneyland’s iconic flight simulation attraction, Soarin’. Rhyne surrealistically flies audiences above and around Paris and Russia, brings ghosts to life, maps out our protagonist’s voyage and more. The projections reach their interactive peak during “We’ll Go From There,” when Anya, Dmitry and Vlad are stowed away on a train out of Russia. As each of the three characters propel the train’s movement with bouncy musical featurettes, the melodies of which excitingly intersect, the background projections change in tandem with the spins and twists of the physical train the characters ride on. It is a rousing bit of theatrical smoke and mirrors, technologically updated for our time.
Overall, “Anastasia” is a musical gem. My heart swells with warmth and promise whenever I think about it, the visuals are stunning and the music has been stuck in my head since September. Theatergoers leave the theater having internalized the notions that “you can’t be anyone unless you first recognize yourself,” as the Dowager Empress instructs, and that “it’s never too late to come home,” as Anya learns. Though I wish some main characters were more complexly portrayed, the company at large delivers.
Contact Chloe Wintersteen at chloe20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.