The road to self-discovery can be perilous but glamorous, at least if you are related to royalty. That’s one potential message to take from “Anastasia,” a new Disney-esque musical now touring at Wharton Center, which draws inspiration from the Twentieth Century Fox films of the same name and the real-life person Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova of Russia.
What “Anastasia” lacks in character and story, it makes up with some good songs, glitzy costumes and epic set pieces, weaving a fairy tale princess story out of personal and national tragedy.
As the show explains, Anastasia is the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar whose entire immediate family was assassinated in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Like the real-life rumors, “Anastasia” offers a ‘what-if she escaped but had amnesia’ narrative that in this show concludes with a crystal covered musical happy ending.
Anastasia the person and character cannot exist without acknowledging the Russian Revolution and some of its causes. But it also does not have to discuss issues of inherited wealth or income inequality beyond including it as the story’s background. After all, this is a story about a young woman’s quest to find her grandmother and wear fancy gowns.
The cast including Lila Coogan as Anya/Anastasia, Stephen Brower and Edward Staudenmayer as con men Dmitry and Vlad, Tari Kelly as Countess Lily, Joy Franz as Anastasia’s grandmother Dowager Empress, and Jason Michael Evans as a conflicted Soviet bureaucrat Gleb are all solid in their respective roles. Coogan brings an intrepid, spunky energy to Anya with a great voice to match. And Evans shares the weight of his moral decisions through his songs, deciding whether to follow orders or be his own man.
But Staudenmayer and Kelly steal the show in the second act number “The Countess and the Common Man,” a pleasant waltz where Vlad and Lily recount their taboo romantic past while rekindling their passionate present. Both actors channel a physicality that feels cartoonish when they are apart. But in this song, their antics click like a naughty but hilarious classic dance number.
The highlights of “Anastasia” are the superb ensemble dancers, the pristine, period costumes designed by Linda Cho and the combined tech work from scenic designer Alexander Dodge, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Peter Hylenski, and projection designer Aaron Rhyne.
A grand arch filled in by projection walls morph throughout the show from an ornate palace, a burning castle, a scenic train ride to Paris and a skyline view of Paris among other locales with minimal seeming effort. And a second act mini ballet featuring a condensed, best of “Swan Lake” led by real ballet dancers Claire Rathbun, Mark MacKillop and Ronnie S. Bowman adds artistic authenticity. These elements, give “Anastasia” a sense of cinematic scale on par with Disney musicals.