BY JEFF LEVENE
I’m going to level with you. I am a major, major, fan of the 1997 animated 20th Century Fox animated classic Anastasia. Sure it’s iconic and nostalgia caked. But it’s also beautifully animated, has gorgeous symphonic music and voices, and is a delightful adventure hiding a deceptively deep narrative about it’s heroine’s empowerment through her own reflective journey.
Anastasia’s recent hit musical adaptation currently at the Peace Center is almost as fun. But it really only capitalizes on two of these three pillars that made the original so fantastic.
For those who didn’t have children or a childhood in the nineties, Anastasia is the tale of the historically famous Russian Romanov princess Anastasia who mysteriously disappeared after the termination of her family at the hands of The Soviet Revolution.
Years after the revolution, two con-men, the not quite debonaire young street rat turned up and comer Dmitry (Stephen Brower), and the older wiser and more gentlemanly Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) are in search of an Anastasia look alike to help them deceive her last remaining relative in Paris and escape with the reward money. This is when Anya (Lila Coogan) a young woman with amnesia stumbles into their presence looking for a fake passport to escape to Paris to uncover her own past. Convincing Anya she might be the missing princess, the three set off to Paris, escaping a tumultuous Russia and the USSR agent Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) who is hot on the trail of the Romanov daughter.
Nearly all the production elements of Anastasia are absolutely incredible. Utilizing some of the best projections I’ve seen to date, real set pieces mix with 3D animations of statues, passing cars or location pieces. And when they blend together, you’ll be left questioning if that statue of Lenin is a physical piece they just carted on stage, or merely a trick of the projector.
The costumes are ornate, from the gorgeous attire of an Imperialistic Russian courts, to ratty post revolution street urchin get ups that have been strung together from articles found in the trash. Then there’s the strict pressed Soviet Officer wear, in contrast with the chic suits and dresses of a roaring twenties Paris, and an absolutely gorgeous red regal gown worn by Anya near the shows end.
Musically the cast’s harmonies blend and are a delight to hear, and the individual performances are all particularly powerful. Most notable is Coogan, who offers a hopeful triumphant belt that soars in numbers like Journey to the Past, and In My Dreams. Her voice alone could topple a Soviet regime, and it provides plenty of empowering moments for Anya in her journey of self discovery.
But here we hit that third pillar. Unlike it’s source material, this is not a well-written nor well-directed show. And it becomes most apparent with Anya.
Anya is at first a shell of a character, snapping a few thoughts but predominantly rigid and prim. We do get juicy little cracks of a personality through her royalty training as Anya knees an obnoxious Dmitry or something clicks about one of her old relatives, but nothing stays or changes her as a character. The direction is restrictive leaving Coogan nowhere to grow, especially when comparing this sheer lack of spunk and gumption with when we see Anya’s aggressive side. In one scene she monotonously follows Dmitry, suddenly fights off drunken street urchins, and then returns to this stoic not quite stubborn trait. This disparity in brash action and mundane reaction leads to Coogan’s Anya feeling more like a plot device shrouded in mystery than a fully functioning character.
There’s also serious pacing issues surrounding Anya’s on stage time as we don’t even see Anya alone on stage until the end of Act 1 during Journey to the Past, which while certainly moving and well acted by Coogan, doesn’t lead to any great development to her character or her own self discovery. She also is off stage for nearly 25 minutes in Act 2 as we follow a number of side plots that while cute and entertaining, make for a major lull Anya’s arc.
Characters like Dmitry, Gleb, and the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) don’t escape either.
Brower’s Dmitry shows glimpses of an adorkable wannabe con man, especially as he prances across passengers in We’ll Go From There, but falls into stiff dialogue delivery and forced unnatural reactions. His humorous beats don’t quite feel natural, sometimes with off timing, other times his choices simply lack any trace of con-man bravado as if he’s too often simply going through the motions.
Michael Evans Gleb’s has a gorgeous voice, but his attempts to tackle an inner struggle can only be read as a lackluster and wimpy version of Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, and this is nearly entirely the clunky scripts.
Meanwhile, Franz’s Dowager Empress was stern and then more stern, and then slightly more stern than that.
And while the script lacks any form of nuance, the director makes matters worse by relying on plant and deliver acting. So many scenes were a husk of what they could be, that only needed some personality and emotion from the actors.
The major exception to this rule was Edward Staudenmayer’s portrayal of Vlad, who captured such real moments from the frustrations of a weary teacher, the dread of aging, or even the hilarity of a horny 50 something reigniting with his old flame.
And speaking of this old flame, Tari Kelly’s Countess Lilly was the other stand out performance, showing the bitterness of a homesick expat in Land of Yesterday, or puddling to the ground like desperate housewife as she and Vlad flirt in The Countess and The Common Man. These two gave so much life and vivacity to their scenes that it salvaged large portions of the show.
There were a number of other issues in the show’s construction. Many of the new numbers are very mundane American sounding. I swear My Petersburg should be facing copyright charges from Wicked. The choreography, while great in the Swan Lake scene, was often repetitive or even a bit too simplistic in company numbers. Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart was especially disappointing.
The most ironic part is if asked if Anastasia is still worth seeing, I’d say it most certainly is, especially for younger audience members. The show is still a filled with visual candy and plenty of fun with it’s production value as it’s crowning jewel. The set pieces are incredible, the voices spectacular, and add in some Russian Vodka and you’ll have a hell of a night at the theatre on hand.
But at its core, Anastasia’s failure to embrace the simplicity of its source material is what drastically hinders its effectiveness as a show. The plot and direction spend so much time preserving a convoluted myth surrounding Anastasia, so much time attempting to tackle themes of Communism and politics while maintaining a prim and proper demeanor, and so much time on squeezing in side characters and stage jokes. When in the end the true focus should still be on the importance of Anya’s very own self realized journey to her past
“Anastasia” continues through Sunday, Oct. 28 at the Peace Center. For tickets, visit www.peacecenter.org or call (864) 467-3000.