Growing up, I always just assumed Fox’s 1997 animated musical “Anastasia” was a Disney movie. The art style, the music, the “princess” narrative: it all just added up to Disney in my head. It wasn’t until a few years ago when the title resurfaced as a stage musical that I realized I had been wrong all along. Though it has all of the machinations of a classic animated Disney musical with a little bit of socialism and gun violence sprinkled in for good measure, the great heights it reaches for seem to be just ever-so-slightly out of the show’s grasp.
The show ended it’s Tony-nominated Broadway run this past March and didn’t hesitate in departing on a tour, which is stopping at the Academy of Music April 9-14.
The show centers around a young amnesiac girl, Anya (Lila Coogan), who gets caught up the scheme of two roguish conmen named Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) who are attempting to find a girl to pretend to be Anastasia Romanov, the presumed dead heiress of the Romanov family who were overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917. The story takes place 10 years later, in 1927, as the three try their best to make Anya into Anastasia but soon start to have suspicions there may be more to her past than she seems to remember. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks hear the rumors about Anya and send Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) after her as the trio attempts to flee to France to reunite “Anastasia” with her Nana (Joy Franz), accompanied by her assistant, Lily (Tari Kelly), and receive the 2 million ruple reward.
The performances were solid for the most part. The main trio of Coogan, Brower and Staudenmayer were really great. They all brought their characters to life in both dialogue and song in moments of both heart and comedy. Coogan’s performances of “In My Dreams” and “Once Upon a December” were standouts for her. She was consistently the best performer of the show, and the scene she later shares with her Nana was far and away the best acted and most compelling scene in the show. Evans seemed to struggle a little bit with carrying an intimidating presence and with some of the higher notes in “The Neva Flows” and “Still” but won me over when he seriously impressed with his performance of “Still/The Neva Flows (Reprise)” alongside Coogan where his acting and vocal performances made up for any previous shortcomings.
Unfortunately, the issues with the show don’t lay with the cast but with the book itself. The show runs a hefty two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission. Act one, while featuring many of the big songs, seemed to drag on for a very long time, and the pacing felt weird and awkward. Fun moments like Dmitry’s “My Petersburg” and “We’ll Go From There” where the cast boarded a large rotating wire-framed, train-car and sang as they travelled pulled it out of its lulls, but it just kept going. Luckily, the second act picked up the pace a good bit, but by the time the show ended it had felt long and full of many unnecessary moments.
One of the cool stand-out sequences in the second act was a song that accompanied a performance of “Swan Lake” that impressed and entertained.
However, in addition to the length, much of the writing came off as very forced and corny in a way that potentially could have been directed better but was largely a lost cause. Moments like the ghost of Anastasia’s young brother swinging above her bed, telling her that they were all going to die and a few others caused me to chuckle in pretty serious moments.
But when the show wanted me to chuckle, it usually did a good job; the humor hit pretty hard, especially from Vlad and Lily, who take on big roles as comic relief and keep things moving swiftly and scandalously along in the second act .
Overall, it isn’t a perfect show, but it’s a lot of fun, and there are great moments scattered throughout its lengthy runtime. It’s worth the trip if it can be made.