Thursday, February 7, 2019

Yes, They Rhymed Stroganoff with Romanov: A Review of Anastasia at the Majestic

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2019 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY EVAN ZIMMERMAN / MURPHYMADE
  • Photo by Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade
Anastasia, a musical version of two Fox motion pictures, strikes me as a missed opportunity, even as directed to the hilt by Darko Tresnjak. The set-up could be intriguing: a pair of con artists in Revolutionary Russia, Dmitry and Vlad, audition young women to impersonate Anastasia, the only Romanov still missing after the massacre of 1917. Eventually they audition Anya, a lowly street sweeper, who claims she can’t remember anything before an explosion landed her in a hospital. What begins as a Pygmalion-like scene of rehearsal and hoodwinking concludes with the startling realization that this girl might be the real Anastasia. Together, they hatch a plan to escape to Paris where the last surviving Romanov, the Dowager Empress, pines for her lost granddaughter.

This is already a lot of moving parts. But the creators—including playwright Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens—struggle to craft a compelling narrative from the slimmest and (to my mind) laziest of plot devices: amnesia. When the going gets tough—or a comrade gets suspicious—Anya suddenly remembers another detail from her childhood, and all is magically forgiven. (The worst offender is the ludicrous song “In a Crowd of Thousands” in which Anya and Dmitry abruptly and implausibly remember the same unremarkable moment from their tender youths. Indeed, Anya in particular seems to oscillate between amnesia and total photographic recall. It’s spooky.) The second structural problem is that the supernatural villain from the animated film—Rasputin—has been replaced by a Soviet, realist substitute: Gleb, the awkwardly named Communist officer whose father perpetrated the massacre at the Romanov palace, and who is committed to finishing the job by offing Anastasia. But Gleb, alas, is a sorry, one-note creation, even as valiantly portrayed by Jason Michael Evans. Nothing quickens my pulse more than dialectical materialism, but that’s all that Gleb represents: he’s a plot-device, the embodiment of revolution and historical process but without any real commitment to the artistic stakes of that choice. Indeed, the musical (if anything) seems to be siding with the Romanovs: wealth and privilege trump—Trump?—the worlds of socialism and penury.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY EVAN ZIMMERMAN / MURPHYMADE
  • Photo by Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade
The musical’s perkier second act—which leaves Russia far behind—largely centers on the lives of the rich and exiled in Paris, including a surprising romantic subplot involving Vlad and his ex-lover, Countess Lily. In fact, this subplot pushes the evening past the two-and-a-half-hours point for little other than the joy of musical theatre itself: the best routine in the show (“The Countess and the Common Man”) exudes an old-fashioned charm that wouldn’t be out of place in a midcentury musical. (As the Countess, Tari Kelly is a superbly gifted comedienne, with not just a touch of Carol Burnett.) The main trio—played by Lila Coogan, Stephen Brower, and Edward Staudenmayer—are strong throughout, and Coogan in particular lands the Oscar-nominated, propulsive ballad “Journey to the Past.” In expanding the score from the animated film, Flaherty often draws on the European operetta tradition, including some surprising and even moving counterpoint and harmonies.

The musical’s look is striking. Designers Alexander Dodge and Aaron Rhyne doubled down on the technical wizardry, and the result is a highly cinematic digital set abounding in 3D effects. My companion for the evening thought this was cheating, and at times it did seem like Marxism: The XBOX Game. But I’m a sucker for innovations in design, and a speeding train sequence was suitably jaw-dropping. (Ditto for a spectral flashback to the Romanovs’ pre-revolutionary ballroom, resplendent with a panoply of digital ghosts.) And then there were the simple pleasures of the non-digital design: Linda Cho’s Tony-nominated costumes effectively contrasted the drab garb of Revolutionary Russia with the bright and cheery threads of France’s flamboyant flappers. In other words, the tour looks great.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY EVAN ZIMMERMAN / MURPHYMADE
  • Photo by Evan Zimmerman / MurphyMade
Anastasia could have been revolutionary in many senses. It’s set at an historically critical moment; it’s high minded about its themes of belonging and place; and like its competitor Frozen, it features a plucky female protagonist, which isn’t exactly a given on Broadway. But it’s also hobbled by fundamental errors in structure and pacing, which results in an overlong and unfocused evening. Though it began its life as an animated film, it’s not exactly a kid’s show, and yet kids would seem to be its target audience. Ultimately Anastasia the musical—like Anastasia the princess—isn’t quite sure who, or what, to be when it grows up.

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