Review: ‘Anastasia’ Dazzles Durham

By Lauren Van Hemert

Sometimes it’s nice to go to the theater to be dazzled. And the national touring production of Anastasia is definitely dazzling.

The Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova was the youngest child of Tsar Nicholas II. After she and her family were murdered by a group of Bolsheviks in 1918, rumors circulated that Anastasia had escaped and survived the attack. While the “mystery” surrounding Anastasia’s survival have been disproved, it has been the subject of several movies, a stage play (1952), and a 2017 Broadway musical. In fact, the 2017 Broadway musical Anastasia is inspired by the 1997 Twentieth Century Fox animated film. And although the overall premise is the same, the 2017 Broadway musical doesn’t exactly follow the movie.

Lila Coogan plays Anya, a spirited, strong young woman with amnesia. Anya has worked and walked her way across Russia in search of someone who can help her get a one-way ticket to Paris. She meets up with two scheming con men, Dmitry, played on Durham’s opening night by understudy Matt Rosell, and Vlad, played by Edward Staudenmayer. The pair groom Anya to pass her off as the Grand Duchess Anastasia and collect a reward from Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress, played by Joy Franz. In the end, however, the joke may be on them because Anya just might be the real deal.

Coogan has some big princess shoes to fill and does. Vocally she sports her range, delivering some of the movie’s most well-known songs including the haunting Once Upon a December and Academy Award-nominated song Journey to the Past. But it’s the stage veterans in this production, including Staudenmayer, Franz, and Tari Kelly as the Dowager Empress’ lady-in-waiting, who anchor and even steal the show. In fact, Staudenmayer and Kelly deliver one of the show’s most entertaining numbers, The Countess and the Common Man.

Don’t recognize that song title from the movie? That’s because one difference between the movie and the Broadway show is the addition of 16 new songs by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The other big change from the movie is the elimination of the Rasputin character, which, in my opinion, may have been a mistake. Here the antagonist is a young, military officer named Gleb, played dutifully in this production by Jason Michael Evans. Evans’ operatic voice is beautiful, but his character might be better placed in an operetta similar to Passion or Phantom of the Opera rather than in a light, cinematic fairy-tale.

But the stunning visuals are the real star of this production. Linda Cho’s costumes are breathtaking. And Aaron Rhyne’s screen projections work in tangent with Alexander Dodge’s scenic design to not only effectively recreate some of the film’s more memorable moments but also give the production a grandiose feel.

It is no secret that I wasn’t a fan of Frozen and wrote that aside from two stellar performances, it felt more like a theme park production than Broadway musical. This is infinitely better and will surely delight audiences both young and old. I just wish producers could come up with some fresh material.

Anastasia runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit https://www.dpacnc.com/.

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