Review: Anastasia aims for a fairy tale, misses with a clumsy script and a telephonic direction
First released in 1997, the animated feature film Anastasia quickly gained recognition among the wildly popular Disney Princesses of the time. Except one thing: it’s not a Disney movie. Produced by Fox Family Films, the film never quite kicked off the studio label’s animation production as they had hoped. But the film was still a huge success. With an all-star cast (Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Hank Azaria, Christopher Lloyd, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury) and uplifting and uplifting music from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Anastasia earned over $58 million at the box office and landed two Oscar nominations.
Valuable intellectual property like this cannot go untapped these days, so in 2015 an off-Broadway trial of a new stage musical adaptation was in the works and in 2017 the production premiered on Broadway, winning two Tony nominations and spawning touring companies around the world. One of those tours is coming to Chicago this week for a brief run of performances at a glance and you’re gonna miss it at the CIBC Theater in the Loop, and I guess, if you’ve got nothing better to do with your time (which I think includes just watching the original movie, streaming for free with a card from the Chicago Public Library via Hoopla), it might be worth heading downtown for that clunky release and telephoned of what is otherwise perfectly harmless if overly simplified version of the myth surrounding Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last Tsar of Russia.
This version of the story opens in 1906, with a young Anastasia (Alexandrya Salazar) bidding farewell to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Gerri Weagraff), who is about to return to live in Paris. She gives the young girl a small music box and sings her the waltz lullaby “Once Upon a December” as they vow to meet again one day. A lavishly costumed dance scene (Linda Cho’s costumes are stunning, that’s for sure) turns young Anastasia into a teenager, as we fast-forward to 1917. This is about where things go wrong for a show attract tourists, families and romantics but ultimately have to face some pretty grim realities. Anyone with a passing knowledge of early 20th century history knows what will happen next: As a Bolshevik rebellion grew around them, the Romanov family was kidnapped and brutally murdered in July 1918. Although rumors arose persisted for decades that Anastasia survived this massacre, DNA evidence has since conclusively proven not. Anastasia exists in a world of “what if?”, imagining that the fairy tale ending might be real, that an unnamed orphan with amnesia might be tricked into remembering his true identity and being raised to the royalty.
In the 1997 film, all of this is dealt with quickly in a prologue that sees the tragedy unfold off-screen as Anastasia and her grandmother are led away from violence by a young servant. It’s not perfect either (the movie’s villain is Rasputin, of all people, who was long dead by the time the Romanovs died, let alone in the 1920s…), but it at least works in a way narrative to ensure the rest of the story’s focus is on Anastasia’s Pygmalion-like transformation. In the stage version (book by Terrence McNally), we quickly jump to 1927, where St. Petersburg is now Leningrad and Communism is failing its comrades. Anya (Veronica Stern), as she knows herself, makes her living sweeping the streets; she is noticed one day by Gleb (Ben Edquist), an officer of the Bolshevik regime who takes a liking to this shy and unassuming young woman. Elsewhere, Dmitry (Willem Butler) is a young con man always on a new plan; along with her partner Vlad (Bryan Seastrom), a former Russian courtier, the two decide to capitalize on the rumor about Anastasia and find a woman to impersonate the Grand Duchess. They run into Anya when she approaches Dmitry to buy exit papers; she doesn’t know why, but she is drawn to Paris, almost as if someone is waiting for her there.
Eventually, Dmitry and Vlad convince Anya that she might just be the missing Anastasia, and their work begins to prepare her for an audience with the Empress Dowager. But Gleb gets wind of their deception and anyway, he has a duty to put an end to it. If she is Anastasia, he is in charge of “finishing the job” started that day in 1918; if she isn’t, she’s a fraud and a criminal who should be in jail. The rest of the show (the first act is set in Russia, the second in Paris) juggles a cat-and-mouse game as Gleb, a sort of poor man’s Javert (although Edquist has more than the voice to this iconic role), follows the trio in Paris, with the will-she-won’t-she drama surrounding Anya and her quest to prove who she is to her grandmother.
Aherns and Flaherty return to the creative team for this adaptation, a version that retains many of the film’s best songs (in a different order, but fine) but adds several in an attempt to navigate this version of the plot. McNally’s ungainly storyline somehow over-complicates the proceedings without ever fully forming any of the narrative threads it begins. Gleb has a lot at stake, for example, but the show is too timid to give him the fierceness he should have, but declaws him so that when he finally faces Anastasia in the final scenes, he won’t hold any of the weight. is destined to. The scenes that are meant to be emotional and moving, like the moment the Empress Dowager agrees to see this young woman claiming to be Anastasia, are long and far too wordy. We all know where this leads; why take so long to get there?
This touring cast does an admirable job with the material provided to them; Stern and Butler make their national tour debut here, and they easily keep up with their fellow actors and gear. The star, by far, is saved for Madeline Raube’s second act as Countess Lily, lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager who is guardian to the former monarch. She has comedic chops and impressive pipes, and the stage lights up every time she enters. But even the staging here is underwhelming, a sort of community theater-style montage that relies on a few sets to establish depth, then places the majority of scene changes on a digital display that spans the entire back wall- plan. Of course, this allows for photo-realistic displays of the Parisian skyline, a Russian palace and more. But it’s also terribly sad and, frankly, half-crazy, when so much is possible in real, tangible settings that remind us that we’re in the theater, not some horribly lit corner of Times Square. (A quick YouTube search confirms that the Broadway production also relied heavily on screens, but also used a number of additional live sets.)
The premise of Anastasia is naive at best, problematic at worst. But at least the movie version is wise enough to put some distance between itself and the realities of the Romanov family, the political upheavals of the time, and other such inconvenient facts, enough for us to appreciate Anastasia as a creation of the imagination. , a princess as real as Belle or Jasmine. Trying to place it more securely in its true timeline while remaining reluctant to get as serious as it would require, this staged version is a soft adaptation that, while it might entertain, isn’t as worthy of an artistic offering than the movie or, probably, anything else currently on stage in Chicago.
Anastasia until Sept. 25 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; tickets and more information available online here. The duration is 2h30 including an intermission.
For more information on this and other productions, visit www.theatreinchicago.com.
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