Review: Anastasia Aims for a Fairy Tale, Misses with a Clunky Script and Phoned-In Staging

First released in 1997, the animated feature film Anastasia quickly earned a recognition among the widely popular Disney princesses of the era. Except for one thing: it’s not a Disney film. Produced by Fox Family Films, the movie never quite launched the studio label’s animation production the way they’d hoped. But the film was a bona fide success nevertheless. With a star-studded cast (Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Hank Azaria, Christopher Lloyd, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury) and music, both inspiring and catchy, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Anastasia earned more than $58 million at the box office and landed two Academy Awards nominations.

In this day and age, valuable IP like that can’t go unexploited, so by 2015, an off-Broadway trial of a new stage musical adaptation was in the works and in 2017, the production premiered on Broadway, earning two Tony nominations and spawning touring companies around the world. One of those tours makes its way through Chicago this week for a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run of performances at the CIBC Theatre in the Loop, and I suppose, if you’ve nothing better to do with your time (which, I think, includes simply watching the original film, streaming for free with a Chicago Public Library card via Hoopla), it might be worth heading downtown for this clunky, phoned-in version of what’s otherwise a perfectly harmless if overly simplified version of the myth surrounding the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last Czar of Russia.

Image courtesy Broadway in Chicago.

This version of the story opens in 1906, with a young Anastasia (Alexandrya Salazar) bidding goodbye to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Gerri Weagraff), who is set to return to life in Paris. She gives the young girl a small music box and sings her the waltzy lullaby “Once Upon a December” as they vow to meet again some day. A sumptuously costumed dance scene (Linda Cho’s costumes are stunning, to be sure) transitions young Anastasia to a teenager, as we’re fast-forwarded to 1917. It’s about here that things first go wonky for a show that wants to light-heartedly appeal to tourists, families and romantics but ultimately must confront some pretty dark realities. Anyone with a passing awareness of early 20th-century history knows what happens next: as a Bolshevik rebellion grew around them, the Romanov family was kidnapped and brutally murdered in July 1918. Though rumors persisted for decades that Anastasia somehow survived this massacre, DNA evidence has since proved conclusively that she did not. Anastasia exists in a world of “what if?,” imagining that perhaps the fairy tale ending could be real, that a no-name orphan with amnesia could be roused to remember her real identity and be elevated to royalty.

In the 1997 film, all this is dealt with swiftly in a prologue that sees the tragedy unfold off screen as Anastasia and her grandmother are whisked away from the violence by a young houseboy. It’s not perfect either (the villain in the film is Rasputin, of all people, who was long dead by the time the Romanovs died, let alone into the 1920s…), but it at least works narratively to ensure the focus of the rest of the story is on Anastasia’s Pygmalion-like transformation. In the stage version (book by Terrence McNally), we’re quickly moved on to 1927, where St. Petersburg is now Leningrad and communism is failing its comrades. Anya (Veronica Stern), as she knows herself to be, earns a meager living sweeping streets; she’s noticed one day by Gleb (Ben Edquist), an officer in the Bolshevik regime who takes a liking to this mousy, unassuming young woman. Elsewhere, Dmitry (Willem Butler) is a young con man always onto a new scheme; with his partner Vlad (Bryan Seastrom), a former Russian courtier, the two decide to capitalize on the rumor about Anastasia and find a woman to pass off as the Grand Duchess. They cross paths with Anya when she approaches Dmitry about buying exit papers; she can’t be certain why, but she’s drawn to Paris, almost as if someone is waiting for her there.

Image courtesy Broadway in Chicago.

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 Dowager Empress. But Gleb gets wind of their deception and either way, he’s duty-bound to put an end to it. If she is Anastasia, he’s tasked with “finishing the job” started that day in 1918; if she’s not, she’s a fraud and a criminal who should be in jail. The rest of the show (the first act takes place in Russia, the second in Paris) juggles a cat-and-mouse game as Gleb, a sort of poor-man’s Javert (though Edquist more than has the voice for that iconic role), follows the trio to 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 which maintains 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 script somehow over-complicates the proceedings without ever fully forming any of the narrative threads he begins. Gleb has a lot on the line, for example, but the show is too timid to give him the ferocity he should have, all but declawing him so that when he finally does confront Anastasia in the final scenes, it holds none of the weight it’s intended to. Scenes meant to be emotional and moving, like the moment the Dowager Empress agrees to see this young woman claiming to be Anastasia, are drawn out and far too wordy. We all know where this is going; why take so long to get there?

This touring cast does an admirable job with the material they’re given; both Stern and Butler make their national touring debut here, and they easily keep pace with their fellow actors and the material. The standout, by far, is saved for the second act in Madeline Raube as Countess Lily, the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting who’s the gatekeeper to the former monarch. She’s got comedic chops and impressive pipes, and the stage lights up whenever she enters. But even the staging here is disappointing, a sort of community-theater style mounting that relies on a few set-pieces to establish depth and then puts the majority of the scene changes on a digital display that spans the entire wall upstage. Sure, this allows for photo-realistic displays of the Parisian skyline, a Russian palace and more. But it also feels terribly sad and, frankly, half-assed, when so much is possible in real, tangible set pieces that remind us we’re at the theater, not a ghastly lit corner on Times Square. (A quick YouTube search confirms while the Broadway production also heavily relied on screens, it also utilized quite a few more actual sets.)

The premise of Anastasia is naive at best, problematic at worst. But at least the film version is wise enough to put a bit of distance between itself and the realities of the Romanov family, the political upheaval of the time and other such bothersome facts, enough to allow us to enjoy Anastasia as a creation of the imagination, a princess as real as Belle or Jasmine. By attempting to more securely place her in her real timeline yet remaining unwilling to get as gritty as that would require, this staged version is a limp adaptation that, while it may entertain, is not nearly as worthy an artistic offering as the film or, likely, anything else currently on stage in Chicago.

Anastasia runs through September 25 at CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.; tickets and more information available online here. Running time is 2.5 hours including one intermission.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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