1918 was a lousy year for the Romanovs, but judging from the noisy, lurid Fabergé egg of a musical that just landed with a splat at the Academy of Music, 2019 doesn’t look much better.
What’s most astonishing about Anastasia isn’t that several genuinely talented people are involved in its creation (more on that later). It’s the sheer perverse weirdness of the idea. The rest, as they like to say on Law & Order, is the fruit of a poisonous tree.
The actual history is horrific. In July 1918, Grand Duchess Anastasia, along with her parents and four siblings, were violently murdered in Yekaterinburg.
Perhaps as a kind of wish fulfillment—or at least to soften the unthinkable—a romantic myth grew soon after that suggested Anastasia had somehow escaped. This dubious story never got any traction from scholars, but an effective if sudsy melodrama was made of it by French playwright Marcelle Maurette, which subsequently became a movie with Ingrid Bergman.
As late as 1997, the idea that Anastasia survived was enshrined in a far more preposterous animated movie musical. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens wrote a handful of hummable if banal songs; four scriptwriters share responsibility for the incomprehensible story, which features an albino fruit bat who serves as Rasputin’s assistant.
Naturally, it was a huge hit.
Around the same time, the myth of a possible escape was fully debunked through DNA evidence. The Romanov family—including Anastasia—died in 1918. It is a matter of fact.
“What would they think if they actually knew?,” I wondered, staring at rows of enchanted, tiara-wearing tots sitting in the theater. Of course, they don’t want to grow up to be Anastasia; they want to be AnastasiaTM, who is, fundamentally, an off-brand Disney-style Princess (think Cinderella-plus-snow). She’s perky! She sings and twirls! She finds a boyfriend!
Anastasia the stage musical draws from several sources, but most of all the animated movie. Flaherty and Ahrens have expanded the film’s score, which now goes on at great length while paradoxically sounding slighter than ever. Veteran playwright Terrence McNally has both streamlined and broadened the story, introducing any number of new vulgarities along the way. (In the plus column, at least we lost Rasputin and the fruit bat.) Watching this, it’s hard to remember that this distinguished team is also responsible for Ragtime, a truly splendid musical, but I urge you to try.
The result is a garish stage pageant that could scarcely seem more contrived. Meandering from Russia (dank!) to Paris (glamorous!), there’s not an authentic or moving moment to be found.
A few more observations:
** Director Darko Tesnjak’s production makes this live-action show look as much like a cartoon as possible. (Tresnjak has also done good work under better circumstances.)
** Principal performers Lila Coogan (Anastasia), Stephen Brower (Dmitry, her betrayer/boyfriend), and Jason Michael Evans (Gleb, a tortured Bolshevik) all seem to be working very hard. Despite over-amplification, their good voices sound audibly taxed by the demands of a long tour.
** Tari Kelly (Countess Lily, who moonlights as an intrigante and nightclub diseuse—don’t ask) is the show’s highlight, singing and dancing with sparkle.
** Joy Franz as the Dowager Empress is about as close to Russian royalty as Aunt Eller.
** Gaudy as most of Anastasia is (scenery by Alexander Dodge, costumes by Linda Cho, lighting by Donald Holder), color drains entirely in Russia once the communists take over—everything is gray and brown. The new order is grim indeed, and it seems important to the creative team that we never consider that the Revolution might have had a political purpose.
** An overstuffed climatic sequence that begins with Swan Lake and later segues into a pantomime recreation of the Romanov assassination is really comprehensible only as a Producers-style parody.
Oh, did I mention that while the animated movie clocks in at just over 90 minutes, this stage show goes on for 2.5-plus hours? Sometime in the middle of Act II, as Parisians danced the night away for no reason I could figure out, my mind wandered to a probably apocryphal but delicious theater story from decades ago. Pia Zadora was appearing in The Diary of Anne Frank, and just as the Gestapo entered the secret annex, an audience member allegedly shouted, “They’re in the attic!”
Anastasia plays through April 14 at the Academy of Music. For more information, visit the Kimmel Center website.