Based on the 1997 animated musical and inspired by the Oscar-winning 1956 drama, the musical Anastasia (★★★) parades a tasteful, refined take on the historical legend of the long-lost Grand Duchess of Russia.
The touring company of Darko Tresnjak’s 2017 Broadway production fills the Kennedy Center Opera House with sumptuous music, exquisite costumes, and impressively projected scenic backdrops that add snowfall or clouds rolling across the skies of St. Petersburg. The production dazzles with elegance, while the book by Terrence McNally elaborates a tale of old-fashioned romance and wish fulfillment. The overall effect is Shirley Temple-cute, which isn’t a bad standard to meet for the journey of young Russian Anya (Lila Coogan) from amnesiac street-sweeper to possibly the last surviving daughter of Tsar Nicholas II (Michael McCorry Rose) and Tsarina Alexandra (Lucy Horton).
But the presentation doesn’t venture far beyond cute, despite a grim romantic plotline for Anya’s love interest Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) that has the Bolshevik general contemplating whether he could follow through on orders to execute the Grand Duchess Anastasia on sight. He even sings about it in “The Neva Flows,” a baleful ballad that Evans performs brilliantly.
The award-winning team of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens expanded their six-song soundtrack from the animated movie into a sweeping, dynamic score for the stage. Anya summons dancing memories of her family’s past in the haunting “Once Upon a December.” And she engages a different dance with the con man Dmitry (Stephen Brower), duetting on their love song “In a Crowd of Thousands.”
It’s unfortunate, but not unprecedented, that the musical’s most recognizable tune, “Journey to the Past,” is its blandest. Alas, Coogan’s delivery of the song hammers that point home with the vanilla vocalizing of a Voice contestant. The performance and presentation of the centerpiece number betray a fear of displeasing fans, rather than the thrill of serving them a favorite dish.
The enterprise generally seems too invested in the appearance of begowned perfection, highlighting that cute usually comes with not much passion. And in Anastasia, it also comes without a strong villain — or any villain, really — another move seemingly geared towards easing palatability.
Cutting through the cute with comedy and verve, Tari Kelly and Edward Staudenmayer set off waves of passion in their crowd-pleasing featured roles as Countess Lily and Vlad, “The Countess and the Common Man.” The show could use more of the pair, and their energy.
The story weaves in just enough of Joy Franz’s Dowager Empress, Anya’s possible long-lost noble grandmother, to develop some urgency in the underlying mystery of Anya’s true identity. Then the improbable conclusion more or less casts aside the mystery and its implications in favor of cute romance. So the story disappoints, even while the beautiful score and scenery do not. To behold the opulence of this production, while listening to the original Broadway cast recording, seems like a dream for some future once upon December.
Anastasia runs to Nov. 25, at Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $49 to $175. Call 202-467-4600, or visit Kennedy-Center.org.
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