Theater review: Anastasia at the Peace Center
Bruce: Let's start our conversation about the new musical Anastasia, now running at the Peace Center in Greenville, SC, by talking about the show's breakout star: that enormous, awesome video display that fills the entire back wall of the stage.
Edwin: Indeed! I’ve never seen anything like that in a stage production and was fascinated by it throughout the performance. With a single, seamless backdrop and arches on either side, a multitude of settings both indoors and out are created to convincing degrees. Do you have a favorite or five?
Bruce: The cityscapes are especially lovely, and the moving images during a speeding train sequence were so convincing that I flinched when people got on or off. The magic of the backdrop and those side arches was that it transports us instantly from location to location — from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, say, or from a park to a palace, and they all look great. That speed was important, since there's a lot of plot and more than two dozen songs to get through. Did you know the story beforehand?
Edwin: Just the basics of the surviving titular Romanov Grand Duchess being somehow unaware of her true identity, yet working her way back to her rightful standing. I never saw the 20th Century Fox animated film in the late ’90s — the inspiration for the stage version, which retains a few of the movie's songs — but through exposure to its marketing campaign, I've managed to retain that 1) Meg Ryan voices the heroine and 2) there’s a talking bat. How about you? Are you a #Fanastasia?
Bruce: I don't think I qualify as a #Fanastasia, but I was happy to be seated next to a big fan who said she watched the animated film every year on her birthday. She had clearly been waiting for this show to get to town, and her enthusiasm was contagious and shared by much of the audience. She also explained that the talking bat was axed for Broadway, and that the villain was changed from Rasputin to communist leader Gleb Vaganov, who wants to discover whether Anastasia really survived the massacre of the czar and his entire family in 1917 and to eliminate her if she's alive. For a family-friendly musical, Anastasia carries quite the weight of dark world history.
Edwin: The violent storming of the Romanov palace by Lenin’s revolutionaries is another aspect handled nicely by the digital projection. And though I’m with you on the content being kid-appropriate overall, it gets a little risqué in standout number “The Countess and the Common Man,” a delightful comic duet between my two favorite characters, Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) — assistant to the exiled Romanov Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) — and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), who with Dmitry (Stephen Brower) is in Paris to pass off young Anya (Lila Coogan) as Anastasia and collect a massive reward. The first act is no slouch, but I think we agree that it's in the second half when the show is at its best.
Bruce: Act 1 has some standout numbers, such as "Learn to Do It" (adapted from the animated film) and "My Petersburg," but communist antagonist Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) has three songs, which is at least one too many. The shows' creators — Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) — seem to think Gleb is Javert from Les Miserables, but he's just a dull plot device needed for the climax. And, yes, the compact Act 2 — from the exuberant opening dance number ("Paris Holds the Key"), through the boisterous nightclub song "Land of Yesterday," to the finale — makes up for the laxity of the first act. Did I leave out any of your favorite moments?
Edwin: There’s also the first act reprise of “Once Upon a December” and its imagery of dancing spectral figures as Anya’s memories slowly return, which nicely reminded me of an analogous scene from the film’s trailer. I’m with you on Gleb having too many solos, but didn’t go for “My Petersburg” nor anything featuring Dmitry. I don’t doubt Evans’ and Brower’s talents, but their songs are boilerplate at best and neither has an engaging singing voice like Staudenmayer, though perhaps they’ll develop with age. There’s also the matter of Gleb and Dmitry looking remarkably similar, a potentially intentional choice for thematic reasons, but one that had me doubting they were played by different actors until they appeared in the same scene. Couldn’t one have had a mustache or another distinguishing feature?
Bruce: A big scar? A mullet? But seriously, it does get confusing in Paris, when Dmitry loses his rags and Gleb his uniform, both in favor of similar suits. Those suits aside, though, the production clearly spent all the money it saved on sets for the many elaborate, gorgeous costumes (by Lindo Cho), especially for the Romanovs, the exiled Russians in Paris and Anya, who in Act 2 gets twice as many knock-’em-dead dresses as Cinderella. In that complicated lead role, Coogan is quite good, both in portraying the character’s confusion of identity and loyalties and in belting out the songs. Act 1 closer “Journey to the Past” isn’t quite “Let It Go,” but it’s an Idina Menzel-style power ballad that Coogan nails.
Edwin: She’s magnificent and nearly compensates for the blandness of her young male costars in their shared scenes. I was also impressed by Franz, who has her own tricky part as Anastasia’s optimistic yet skeptical grandmother and manages to elicit laughs and — at least for me at one crucial juncture — nearly tears. Were there moments where you got a little choked up?
Bruce: I think the ending works well. It didn’t wreck me, but I’m a hard nut to crack and I bet the #Fanastasia crowd was weeping openly. In terms of clever staging that made me smile the most, I have to mention the “Quartet at the Ballet,” which involves Anya, Dmitry, the Empress, and Gleb. It also includes a mini staging of “Swan Lake,” complete with curtain call, which was quite a feat of choreography (by Peggy Hickey), stage direction (by Darko Tresnjak) and sheer chutzpah. Any final thoughts?
Edwin: The Tchaikovsky is a lovely bonus, and I was also moved by “Stay, I Pray You,” an ensemble love letter to Russia’s natural beauty that's sung prior to our heroes boarding the train to France. Otherwise, I keep coming back to the impressive projection by Aaron Rhyne’s design team. From the faux depth of a long archives hallway to the grandeur of Paris, I have a feeling it’ll be those visuals that stay with me longer than any of the songs.
Anastasia runs through Oct. 28 at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. For tickets, visit peacecenter.org.
(Photos: Matthew-Murphy/MurphyMade/Courtesy of the Peace Center)