Stage Door Review
Saturday, December 7, 2019
music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally, directed by Darko Tresnjak
David Mirvish, Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, Toronto
December 4, 2019-January 12, 2020;
☛ Touring North America until August 2, 2020– see below
Dowager Empress: “Another day, another impostor”
The musical Anastasia is an example of Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures following Disney’s lead in cashing in on its film properties by turning them into stage musicals – except that Fox fails miserably. Everyone knows that Disney needs competition, but Anastasia is no Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Anastasia is irredeemably flawed in conception and execution and is a waste of everybody’s time and money. If you are looking for some lively family entertainment this holiday season, look elsewhere.
The problems with the musical are already evident in its source acknowledgement: “Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures [sic] From the play by Marcelle Maurette as adapted by Guy Bolton”. The trouble is that Fox’s 1997 animated movie and Marcelle Maurette’s play are radically different and are directed at completely different audiences.
Both versions concern the rumour that the Grand-Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna survived the Bolshevik massacre of the ruling Romanov family on July 17, 1918, and went on to live in obscurity as the sole direct heir to the dynasty. Anastasia, Fox studio’s 1997 animated movie directed by Don Bluth, is framed as family entertainment and trivializes momentous events in history like the the death of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution by making them the background for a Disney princess-style fairy tale. Each major character has an animal companion and the movie’s villain is the ghost of Rasputin, who with his bat companion, plans to kill Anastasia as the last of the Romanovs.
Earlier Fox bought the rights to Marcelle Maurette’s play Anastasia (1952) that became the basis for Anatol Litvak’s 1956 film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman in the title role. In this film a former White Russian general comes across an impoverished, amnesiac woman in Paris who looks very much like the Grand-Duchess Anastasia he remembers from his time at court. He coaches her in Anastasia’s life and how to behave like the real royal would and they fall in love. The final test is to convince the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, who lives in exile in Copenhagen, that this is the real Anastasia. Strangely enough, the Dowager Empress believes that general actually has found the real Anastasia but, in order to allow her to marry him and live in peace, she announces that the new Anastasia is yet another impostor. The point is not an escape from a villain but rather the Pirandellian theme of how the elements of illusion and reality constitute a person’s identity.
Litvak’s film has some connection to reality in that it is based on the life of Anna Anderson (1896-1984), the woman most adamant that she was Anastasia and who sued to prove her claim. In 1991 DNA testing proved Anderson was unrelated to the Romanovs. In the same year DNA testing proved that one of the bodies buried with the Romanovs was that of Anastasia and thus ended the rumours that had stirred since 1918. Bluth’s film, therefore, unconscionably revives the disproven rumour simply because Fox is mining property it owns for further use and the musical equally perpetuates the falsehood.
The musical’s creative team – music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally – is the same that wrote the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime (1998). There their target audience was adults. With Anastasia, the team is completely at sea as to whether the show is meant for children or adults. The result is that it is for neither. McNally rids the Fox movie version of its animal companions and of all its supernatural elements. Instead of having Rasputin as Anastasia’s pursuer, he substitutes the character of Gleb, a Bolshevik military officer, whose father helped execute the Romanovs. Gleb is expected to finish the job.
This alteration takes the story out of the realm of fairy tale and cuts it off from a young audience, yet McNally adheres to most of the ahistorical elements of Bluth’s movie and portrays the characters and their actions as cartoonish, never attempting the sophistication of Litvak’s film.
McNally’s plotting is a mess. We are meant to feel sorry for Anastasia, once a grand duchess, and how a street sweeper. Though she is proud of her work she has an strange longing to go to Paris. She goes to conmen Dmitry and Vlad to get a forged exit visa and somehow gets caught up in their plan to pass off a young woman as Anastasia, take her to Paris and win the Dowager Empress’s reward for finding her. This makes Anastasia complicit in a fraud when she has no need to be. Only after the plot is much advanced does McNally let us know that all this time Anastasia has had a fabulous diamond in her possession that was found sewn into her nightdress when she was a child.
Anastasia thus could have bribed anyone to get an exit visa and left for Paris on her own without getting involved in Dmitry and Vlad’s scheme. Dmitry and Vlad make much of having to get Anastasia an invitation to see the Dowager Empress, but as it happens that is totally unnecessary since the Dowager Empress is drawn to Anastasia on her own.
Dmitry and Vlad’s goal had been to use Anastasia to gain a reward, but when the time comes they forego it. The Dowager Empress’s goal had been to have Anastasia back, but when she does come back the Dowager lets her go. Anastasia’s goal had been to find family and home, but when she does, she leaves it behind. Gleb’s goal had been to kill Anastasia but, as it turns out, his threat comes to nothing. Thus, rather than promoting the idea of most cartoon-based musicals of “Hold on to your dreams”, Anastasia seems to promote the idea “Let your dreams go, since what you dream of is not what you want”. Interesting as this idea is, it means that all the songs of longing and wishing to fulfil dreams that occupy two hours of the musical are completely meaningless and not not a propos of the odd place where McNally’s plot is going.
Given a severely flawed musical, director Darko Tresnjak has decided to go overboard on production values apparently with the idea of visually distracting the audience from the pointlessness of the action. We can tell that Linda Cho’s costume design will be heading over the top right from the start of the show. When we first meet Anastasia as a girl before the revolution, the Romanov court is decked out in full public attire, all in white, including crowns and capes. One only needs to imagine Queen Elizabeth II going about her daily business in Buckingham Palace wearing the coronation robes and crown to realize how ridiculous Cho’s depiction is. There are also women in white sarafan folk costumes and kokoshnik headdresses that peasants wear who never would be let inside a royal palace.
The chorus goes through innumerable costume changes as they play courtiers, peasants, Soviet bureaucrats, upper and lower class Parisians and Russian émigrés. For the ballet scene at Palais Garnier, Tresnjak stages what is basically a costume parade where women in Erté-inspired gowns merely walk on and off. Anastasia herself, once in Paris, appears in a new costume with each entrance making us wonder exactly how much the single diamond she had was worth.
Alexander Dodge’s scenic design consists of two moveable archways and one open space that can become an inside room with windows or an balcony without. Changes in location are accomplished entirely by Aaron Rhyme highly detailed projections that fill in Dodge’s archways and open space. Mostly these take on the old-fashioned function of painted backdrops, except that Rhyme often adds elements in motion that distract our attention. For the train ride from Moscow to Poland, Tresnjak uses the old technique of a stationary vehicle, a skeleton passenger car, in front of Rhyme’s moving backgrounds. These kinds of travel scenes are best staged without any background at all, allowing us use our imaginations to fill in the terrain. Here, the effect is as if the train had suddenly entered an animated movie and undercuts any of the would-be realism that the projections had previously created.
On opening night the cast was quite uneven. Anastasia was not played by Lila Coogan but by her understudy, Taylor Quick. Quick speaks in a little-girl voice, though fully grown, and her singing voice under pressure easily becomes piercing with a vinegary tone. Needless to say, this tended to alienate us from the show’s main character who really needs all the empathy she can muster. As written by McNally, Anastasia is both shy and meek and proud and stubborn with no indication of how these opposite traits fit inside the same personality. Anastasia has no reason to go along with Dmitry and Vlad’s scheme so acting of a far greater reach than Quick is capable of is needed to make us believe Anastasia’s actions make sense. It’s quite likely that no one can make this particular character believable.
Jake Levy and Edward Staudenmayer are quite different as the two conmen Dmitry and Vlad. Levy is both a fine singer and actor. He has a fine full voice and makes each of the songs he is given a pleasure to hear. As an actor he successfully transforms Dmitry from mercenary ruffian to young man who becomes kinder and gentler under Anastasia’s influence.
Staudenmayer is also a fine singer but can’t avoid hamming it up as an actor. He has a rich baritone and makes the best impression when he is singing. Vlad is meant to be a comic foil to the more serious Dmitry but Staudenmayer can’t restrain himself from overacting as if he was even happier to hear his rich voice than we are.
The only male principal to have true solo songs in the show is Gleb. On opening night this role was played by understudy Brad Greer rather than the Jason Michael Evans. It difficult to see how anyone could improve on Greer’s performance. He has a strong tenor and delivers both his main songs “Still” and “Land of Yesterday” with passion. Greer conveys the dilemma of a man who wants to complete his father’s task of exterminating the Romanovs but who realizes that he is not so cold and, in fact, has developed feelings for Anastasia. It’s just a pity that the role of Gleb is totally unnecessary. The story, unlike a movie aimed at children, needs no villain supernatural or otherwise. Anastasia’s gradual overcoming of amnesia and the test of meeting the Dowager Empress are tension enough without requiring a bogus external threat.
Joy Franz is a pleasure as the Dowager Empress. It is good to see an elderly woman play an elderly woman on stage after all the sprayed-grey youngsters at Stratford and Shaw. Her voice lends authenticity to her signature song “Once Upon a December” and her demeanour lends dignity to a show that otherwise sorely lacks it.
Tari Kelly is very funny as Countess Lily, whom she plays as a loud-mouthed New York broad rather a member of Romanov nobility. Lily is meant to inject humour into the show in the second act since, save for Vlad’s unfunny jokes, it has had none. She is the lead singer in the most enjoyable number of the show, “Land of Yesterday”, in which Russian émigrés celebrate at the Neva Club (ignorantly spelled “ИЄѴА СLUБ” on its marquee mixing Roman and Cyrillic). Unlike all the faux-Russian songs that dominate the first act, this is a big Charleston extravaganza, right up Flaherty and Ahrens’ street, and the first time the show expresses any joie de vivre instead of its usual mood of doubt and anxiety. The only trouble is that the scene has absolutely no connection to the story. Nevertheless, it and Vlad’s awkward rekindling of romance with the all-too-willing Lily in “The Countess and the Common Man” won the greatest applause of the evening.
In an time when “fake news” is decried by both right and left, it is bizarre that anyone would expend so much effort in creating a large-scale musical based on fake history. The survival of Anastasia was discredited 28 years ago. Why pretend there was any truth to it? In 1956 when the film with Ingrid Bergman was made, the truth was not known. Now it is. If Twentieth Century Fox were not so wedded to repurposing Marcelle Maurette’s play in as many ways possible, an intriguing musical could have been written about Anna Anderson, her claim to be Anastasia and the question whether she really believed she was a Romanov or was simply a consummate actor.
Instead, the studio has given us an emotionally uninvolving and intellectually dubious musical in which the Communists, as per American views, are the bad guys, and the Romanovs, who exploited the country for their own gain, are the good guys. With its background of mass execution and political revolution, Anastasia is not a musical for children and with its false history it is also not a musical for sensible adults. If you think the most important part of a musical is its costumes, you might be happy. But for everyone else, Anastasia is an empty spectacle that does not engage on any level. As my companion remarked after the show, “They should have called it Anæsthesia”.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.
Tour stops after Toronto, ON:
• The Bushnell, Hartford,
January 14-19, 2020;
• Auditorium Theatre, Rochester, NY
January 21-26, 2020;
• Ohio Theatre, Columbus, OH
January 28-February 2, 2020;
• Connor Palace, Cleveland, OH
February 4-23, 2020;
• Civic Center, Des Moines, IA
February 25-March 1, 2020;
• Civic Center Music Hall, Oklahoma City, OK
March 3-8, 2020;
• Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville, AR
March 10-15, 2020;
• KCFA, Louisville, KY
March 17-22, 2020;
• Orpheum Theatre, Minneapolis, MN
March 24-April 5, 2020;
• Tulsa PAC, Tulsa, OK
April 7-12, 2020;
• Saenger Theatre, New Orleans, LA
April 14-19, 2020;
• Times Union Center, Jacksonville, FL
April 21-26, 2020;
• Ovens Auditorium, Charlotte, NC
April 28-May 3, 2020;
• Shea’s Buffalo, Buffalo, NY
May 5-10, 2020;
• Aronoff Center, Cincinnati, OH
May 12-24, 2020;
• Old National Centre, Indianapolis, IN
May 26-31, 2020;
• Orpheum Theater, Omaha, NE
June 2-7, 2020;
• Eccles Center, Salt Lake City
June 9-14, 2020;
• Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA
June 16-21, 2020;
• Keller Auditorium, Portland, OR
June 23-28, 2020;
• Opera House, Boston, MA
July 21-26, 2020;
• Hershey Theatre, Hershey, PA
July 21-26, 2020;
• The Fox, Atlanta, GA
July 28-August 2, 2020
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Lila Coogan as Anastasia and Jake Levy as Dmitry; Victoria Bingham as Young Anastasia and Joy Franz as the Dowager Empress; Lila Coogan as Anastasia and ghosts of the Romanovs; Jake Levy as Dmitry, Lila Coogan as Anastasia and Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad; Jake Levy as Dmitry and Lila Coogan as Anastasia. © 2019 Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade.
For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.