‘Anastasia’ Musical at the Kennedy Center

ANastasiaSo many Romanovs these days!

There’s Matthew Weiner’s Amazon series in which various supposed survivors of the doomed royal line emerges in modern day, with a new episode every Friday. And now there’s “Anastasia,” the popular musical that was just installed for a month-long run at the Kennedy Center.

It’s based on the 1997 animated feature and particularly its score that included an Oscar nominated song. The feature represented the high water point of Bluth Animation, the studio behind “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time” but followed the Disney code so closely that many people still think it’s a Disney film (even the show’s logo is in a Disney-familiar typeface and has most of the letters of “Fantasia”).

At any rate, the project certainly followed the Disney repurposing model in that it turned an animated feature into a stage musical (its plot had already been the basis of a 1955 stage play and the 1956 film with Ingrid Bergman and Helen Hayes). “Anastasia” involves the wholly fictional story of an amnesiac who was youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia, who supposedly escaped the famous family slaughter of 1918 and as an amnesiac a decade later, seeks out her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess in Paris, encouraged by a couple of con men who are seeking the vast inheritance reward.

The link between grandmother and granddaughter is a music box she gives the little one before the dowager goes off to Paris. Its haunting melody and subsequent song “Once Upon a December,” infiltrates the musical the same way it did in the cartoon. And its melody keeps coming back and back and back, even when there are 16 new songs in addition to a half dozen from the original. It comes back even when they’re at the ballet otherwise doing the briefest bit of Tchaikovsky’s “Black Swan.”

It’s a long night and a long story. But as presented by the national touring company in Washington, it moves along mostly on changing sets and canny projections by Aaron Rhyne — the one aspect of the musical that won Tony Awards in the show’s Broadway run last year. There’s not just the smoke rising from the St. Petersburg setting, but moving landscapes from the train, a high hilltop revealing Paris at the end of act one. Even the falling snow in mother Russia which would ordinarily be theatrical flakes are quite naturally done on the projections.

I had forgotten that this “Anastasia” was developed in my old hometown at the Hartford Stage, where its delectably named director Darko Tresnjak had success bringing another work to Broadway, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” four years ago. That might have fueled his ambition in “Anastasia” two years later — a piece which already had a generation of fans from the animated film, and that one song.

On stage, they’ve done away with the cartoonish aspects. The Hank Azaria-voiced bat (around whom they made a straight to video sequel) is gone, so is Rasputin, who has been turned into a Stalinist operative (Jason Michael Evans), who has an operatic voice but looks and sounds like the other romantic interest in the musical, Dmitry (Stephen Brower), who is one of the con men with Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer).

At the center of it all is Lila Coogan’s Anya, the girl who would be Anastasia. She’s youthful and has a good voice but like the others there’s something a little bland about her (in a way I guess all Disney heroines have been before her). Joy Franz is the Dowager  has a key role early as the too-sweet grandma and later as the embittered elder (she also has the best credentials of the road company).

It’s surprising how little humor there is in the work until act two when Tari Kelly does all the right comic things to squeeze laughs out of her Countess Lily (who was Sophie in the cartoon). It goes a long way especially when there’s nothing to accomplish in act two but the reunion, so there’s a lot of things to stretch things out in between.

Tresnjak knows that half of the appeal of the work is visual, so the costumes by Linda Cho are so sumptuous, the killed Romanovs keep recurring if only to see the royal finery one more time. They work with Alexander Dodge’s grand sets and especially Rhyne’s projections to create a kind of fantasy of Russia in the capital city of a nation that happens to be a little bit at odds with the mother country. But enough swirl and melody can make one forget, if only for a night.


“Anastasia” continues at the Kennedy Center through Nov. 25. 


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