Terrence McNally (Book); Stephen Flaherty (Music); Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics)
|Lila Coogan & Stephen Brower|
Soon after a group of Bolsheviks brutally murdered Tsar Nicolas II and his entire family on July 17, 1918, rumors spread faster than the Revolutionary Guard could extinguish them that Grand Duchess Anastasia had somehow escaped and was living in hiding. So persistent was that rumor that a number of young women through the years came forward claiming to be she in hopes of inheriting the Romanov family fortunes, with it being DNA testing that in 2007 that finally proved all members of the family, including Anastasia, had died.
However, the idea that she might have escaped is just too much like a fairy tale not to have spawned a number of movies and TV films from 1928 to the present, including a 1997 animated musical which then inspired a 2017 Broadway musical by the same name, Anastasia, written by an all-star team of Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). Told from the angle of a street orphan, Anya, suffering from amnesia who yearns to know of her origins and who catches the eye of two Russian con men who also notice her uncanny resemblance to the missing Grand Duchess, Anastasia arrives with its epic-size tale on the SHN Golden Gate stage. The traveling production is mind-blowing with its spectacular video projections; eye-popping with its glorious, period costumes; and completely captivating with its mammoth cast of fabulous voices, talented dancers, and actors excelling as they portray the story’s mix of drama, romance, and comedy.
|Victoria Bingham (a previous Little Anastasia) & Joy Franz|
The story begins in 1906 as a five-year-old Anastasia (the sweet-voiced Delilah Rose Pellow in alteration with Addison MacKynzie Valentino) sings a tearful goodbye to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (the distinguished Joy Franz) who is leaving Moscow for a retired life in Paris. Before the grandmother departs, she gives the young Grand Duchess (noting, “You are my favorite”) a small music box to remember her. Jumping to the fateful night in 1917 amidst a grand ball of dancing Romanovs and counts and countesses all in Russian white, the musical’s stage suddenly becomes an explosion of fire, brimstone, and bullets; and the family all perish – or do they?
By the next scene in 1927 in Communist-controlled Moscow, impoverished comrades roam the freezing street, with vendors trying to sell them supposed, once-owned Romanov items. One young man, Dmitry, buys for two cans of beans a music box he is promised is from the royal family. Stashing that away, he and his buddy, Vlad – an ex-member of the Imperial Court – join those on the street in singing a gossipy “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” about the Princess who is said to have survived. They also hit on a plan for “the biggest con in history.”
Their sudden dream of illegitimate fortune and a ticket to Paris leads them to audition in an abandoned ballroom of the now empty and dilapidated palace girls in their late teens for the role of the missing Anastasia. Finding no one, they are about to give up when in comes one cold and hungry street-sweeper named Anya; and immediately their plan springs back to life.
Not only does Anya remind Dmitry of the real Anastasia whom he as a small boy once saw passing in a parade, she recalls things about the Princess that her two tutors have yet to teach her – things like how to bow with royal grace or recalled aspects of the palace ballroom and a long-ago night of dancing there. Anya remembers bit-by-bit a fateful night of “flashes of fire” and “echoes of screams” but also of whispers by a bridge to “meet you right there in Paris.” As Anya, Lila Coogan sings about “the truth in my dreams” in a beautiful voice that reflects Anya’s repeated, nightly visions of horror and hope.
|Stephen Bower & Lila Coogan|
Anya agrees to seek her fate through the outlandish scheme of Dmitry and Vlad in order to get to Paris and meet who might be her actual grandmother, the surviving Dowager Empress. The three sing a hilarious and physically animated “Learn to Do It” as she receives lessons on family trees, proper tea tasting, and the kind of dancing the Russian royals once did. Stephen Brower brings youthful energy and an air of nervous excitement to his Broadway-voiced Dmitry while Edward Staudenmayer plays the more senior, Vlad with gusto, flair, and built-in confidence and a gruff but pleasing singing voice.
|Jason Michael Evans|
As the three prepare to leave for Paris and a hoped-for audience with the old, once-ruling Empress, rumors of their own surreptitious activity have found their ways to the Communists officials. Enter the scene a young general named Gleb, who brings in Anya for questioning. Jason Michael Evans is strikingly impressive as the interrogating investigator, his role made more intriguing when he identifies in song (“The Neva Flows”) that it was his own sfather who shot the Romanovs as he as a boy heard from another room the shots and the screams. With a voice that pierces the air with its clarity and edge, his Gleb sings of those memories while warning Anya to give up her dream of being the real Anastasia.
An initial attraction for Anya will continue to haunt Gleb later as he weighs official duties and the tugs of his heart. With a distinctly unique voice, Gleb at one point sings in torn misery, “She’s nothing but a child, a waif who needs protection; I feel a strange connection I can’t allow.” In this role where duty to the Party and to the legacy of his father struggle with his own humanity and unspoken love, Jason Michael Evans gives us maybe the strongest performance of the evening among many likewise impressive others.
As the stage is set for a journey to Paris for a reunion between a grandmother and the possible but improbable granddaughter she so desperately wants still to be alive, this emotionally torn official named Gleb leaves also to carry out a duty to ensure no Romanov child is still alive. The epic proportions of the resulting story are reflected in what may be the most impressive video projections I personally have yet to see in a stage production, all designed by Aaron Rhyne. Scenes of an attack on the palace in 1917 explode on stage in a fiery nightmare (supported by the bone-rattling sound design of Peter Hylenski). A Communist headquarters with skyscraper-tall halls of ominous-looking filing drawers is so 3-D real that one is sure the people on stage are actually walking in its corridors. Both St. Petersburg and Paris come to glorious life with colors and scenes so rich and beautiful that gasps can be heard from audience members. Dozens of likened scenes amaze as projected on three giant backdrops, including an elevator ride up the Eifel Tower to behold the City of Lights like a view none of us has ever seen before.
Maximizing the extraordinary videography to the hilt is scenic designer Alexander Dodge whose clever elements pair with the films to further wow those of us oft watching with open mouths. One of several examples is the train ride of our scheming trio to Paris where they ride on a metal skeleton of a period train-car with its wooden-bench seats – a rail carriage that swings in various directions as videos of passing countryside add velocity, excitement, and adventure while our threesome hang out windows singing a romping, anticipatory “Travel Sequence.”
|Edward Staudenmayer, Tari Kelly & Ensemble Members|
Paris brings its own scenes that also show the absolute brilliance of the entire creative team, including the phenomenal range of period costumes designed by Linda Cho and the imaginative, inspired direction of Darko Tresnjak. A rousing evening at a local nightclub frequented by ex-patriot Russians provides choreographer Peggy Hickey yet one more chance to send the cast into a stage-filling round of dances – this time not the Russian waltzes or polkas of earlier scenes but instead the rambunctious, kicking, squatting dances we associate with Russian beer halls. We even go to the ballet where set design and video design bring alive the grandeur of the Paris Opera House while Lyrica Woodruff (Odette), Mark MacKillop (Prince Siegfried), and Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr. (Von Rothbart) burst in an exquisite ballet on stage to give us a flowing glimpse of Swan Lake.
In Paris, our trio has collective and individual reunions and new meetings with characters made memorable by the actors portraying them. While we only see him a couple of times, Fred Inkley provides us big laughs as Count Gregory, a pompous buffoon who wants to be sure Anya is not determined to be Anastasia so he can inherit his elderly Aunt’s fortunes. Joy Franz – now more aged than when we first met her as Dowager Empress – is magnificent in her grand display of past glory and in a strong singing voice that expresses so well the life of living without but still futilely searching for her lost Anastasia (“Close the Door”).
Helping elicit the evening’s biggest and longest-sustained applause is Tari Kelly as the Dowager’s faithful attendant, Countess Lily, who has her own wild and wooly side and who has a lip-smacking reunion with her old fling, Vlad. Together, their song, dance, and comedy-packed “The Countess and the Common Man” highlights two commanding voices and stage presences along with a sustained, stage-kiss that will forever be remembered by the laughing, clapping audience.
From the beginning, the orphan with clouded memories of her beginnings is searching without much hope of finding three things she desperately misses: home, love, and family. As we see at the close of the first act, Dmitry and Vlad have implanted in Anya hope and belief that her “Journey to the Past” – the Oscar-nominated song Lila Coogan delivers to loud ovation – may lead to a destination where she in fact finds all three. Act Two reveals just how real the fairy tale ending might in fact be.
Anastasia is a romantic adventure with a magnificent, historical ambiance where laughs and tears live side by side. In its current touring version at SHN, Anastasia a must-see for anyone who loves the spectacle of live, musical theatre.
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Anastasia continues through September 29, 2019 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus