If you, like me, grew up on the 1997 animated film version of Anastasia, you probably remember the creepy and scary Rasputin, and the titular heroine eventually defeating him by destroying a magical glass vial. While much of the plot, and all of the memorable songs, are the same in the musical version that opened last night at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, Rasputin and all of the supernatural elements have been removed. But despite those differences, this charming production evokes strong feelings of nostalgia, telling a touching tale of a traumatized princess attempting to find her way back to herself.
With music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally, Anastasia opened on Broadway in 2017, closing this past March. After a year of playing cities around the country, the tour has finally made its debut in Los Angeles. Directed by Darko Tresnjak, the story begins with a goodbye between young Princess Anastasia Romanov (Delilah Rose Pellow) and her beloved grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), who is moving to Paris. Ten years later, when Anastasia is a teenager, the Bolsheviks invade the Romanov palace and murder the entire family—or so it seems. Another decade later, rumors that Anastasia managed to escape are still going strong, and the Dowager Empress is growing increasingly discouraged while dealing with a long line of con artists eager to get their hands on the generous reward for her safe return.
Anastasia (Lila Coogan) did escape, but she remembers only waking up in a hospital with amnesia and is unaware of her true identity. She has been making ends meet as a street sweeper in the now destitute St. Petersburg, but cannot shake the strong feeling that the key to unlocking the mystery of her past waits for her in Paris. She meets two con men, the handsome, young Dmitry (Jake Levy) and disgraced former Court member Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), who are looking to recruit a girl to pose as Anastasia so they can fool the Dowager Empress and collect the reward. Anastasia, who goes by Anya, resents their dishonesty, but quickly realizes they are her best chance of obtaining the papers she needs to escape Russia and get to Paris. As the two men train Anya in Romanov history and royal behavior, some memories and mannerisms begin to come back to her, making everyone wonder if this might not be a con after all.
The entire production drips with an opulence fitting of royalty, particularly the detailed and beautiful costumes (Linda Cho). The set (Alexander Dodge) shines during an ambitious sequence on a train, and projections (Aaron Rhyne) add dimension to all of the European locales featured. Much of the show’s success is thanks to Coogan, a true star who gives an earnest and charismatic performance, showcasing impressive vocals on “In My Dreams,” a new song written for the stage, as well as “Journey to the Past,” the film’s pièce de résistance. What makes Anya so fun to watch is that she is hardly the damsel in distress so many princesses are depicted as. She is feisty, stubborn, and independent, whether she is physically fighting off a group of men with unscrupulous intentions or initiating her first kiss with Dmitry. Speaking of Dmitry, tou would never guess that opening night in LA was in fact Levy’s first performance in the role because he seemed very comfortable, oozing leading man charm.
The show’s subplots are a mixed bag. In the absence of Rasputin, there is a new villain character, Gleb (Jason Michael Evans). A Bolshevik general whose father was involved in the murder of the Romanovs, he is torn between completing that family mission and his own romantic interest in Anastasia. But this storyline is underdeveloped and anticlimactic as he lacks the villainous teeth to ever be seen as a real threat. On the other hand, a secondary romance between Vlad and Countess Lily (Tari Kelly), the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting, should feel like unnecessary filler but instead becomes a highlight of the show thanks to Staudenmayer and Kelly’s excellent comedic performances. They had the audience in stitches during “The Countess and the Common Man” as they attempted to struggle against their magnetic attraction to one another.
Narratively, this musical definitely has some shortcomings, mostly thanks to the half-baked antagonist plot, but it makes up for it in heart. There are some truly lovely sequences that represent a perfect marriage of successful performance and design, namely “Once Upon a December,” during which Anya struggles to remember memories just beyond her grasp as the ghosts of her late family dance around her in a haunting reprise of the joyous opening scene. Would this show have worked for me as much as it did without my own nostalgic connection to a movie I loved as a child? Perhaps not, but regardless of your experience with the story, this is a fun and heartwarming musical sure to make you smile.
Anastasia runs at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through October 27th. The running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $39 and can be purchased here. The tour will also play the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from November 5th-17th. Those tickets start at $26 and can be purchased here. For more information on other upcoming tour stops, click here.