Strong vocals, comedic talent lift ‘Anastasia’

CLEVELAND — The musical “Anastasia” is inspired by the 1997 animated film of the same name, but it’s less faithful than many screen-to-stage adaptations.

There are no talking animals, and Rasputin isn’t the villain anymore. Some of the dialogue and a mildly bawdy second-act dance number are aimed at an older audience without being too inappropriate for the whole family. Then again, the kids who wore out copies of the animated hit on videocassette now are in their 20s.

For that generation, the added nostalgic thrill elevates what is a likable but somewhat generic musical.

I went back and found my review of the movie from 1997. I liked it but felt it tried too obviously to duplicate the Disney formula. In the same way, it’s easy to find echoes of other musicals in the stage version of “Anastasia.”

The story takes place about a decade after the Russian Revolution, where two men struggling in communist Russia hatch a plot to find a young woman who can pose as Anastasia, the daughter of the Tsar Nicholas II. She is rumored to be the only survivor following the slaughter of her family, and Anastasia’s grandmother is offering a hefty reward for anyone who can find her.

The irony is that Anya, the street sweeper with amnesia that they pick to execute their plan, actually is the real Anastasia.

Watching Dmitry (Jake Levy) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) school Anya (Lila Coogan) on how to pose as royalty, it’s impossible not to think of “My Fair Lady.” And the dance number with the three of them to “Learn to Do It” feels a bit like “Good Morning” from “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens penned several new songs for the stage, but “Journey to the Past” from the movie remains the standout in the score and is an effective first-act closer, especially when Coogan unleashes her belting voice.

Ditching Rasputin and his albino bat sidekick Bartok was a wise move, although the “villain” of this piece — a Russian bureaucrat assigned to stop Anya, whether she’s the real princess or not — feels more like an afterthought. The role isn’t well-conceived, and Jason Michael Evans isn’t able to elevate it.

The casting is solid, and Staudenmayer stands out as a comedic delight. He and Alison Ewing as Countess Lily milk every possible laugh out of their banter and their dancing / groping on “Land of Yesterday.”

Among the most impressive elements of the production are the projections designed by Aaron Rhyne and used to transport the viewer from the poverty of Russia in the 1920s to the beauty of Paris.

The multiple screens and the quality of the graphics gave many of the images a 3D quality, and scenes that fill the stage with cherry blossoms or offer a first glimpse at the Eiffel Tower are striking enough to produce an audible gasp.



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