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SCHENECTADY — Watching “Anastasia,” the musical that was based on the nostalgic 1997 animated same-named film, was quite the journey to the past. It was inspired by the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, who infamously was murdered with her family in July 1918, as part of the Russian Revolution.
Attending the Oct. 12 performance at Proctors, it felt rather chilling to realize that a whole century has now passed since the notorious execution, which had caused widespread rumors throughout the 20th century about whether the real-life Anastasia survived somehow. Just like Tsar Nicholas II’s family’s riches, the production was an opulent spectacle, boasting regal wardrobes, interactive props and impressive set changes. But it was not enough to hold the shaky storyline up.
The musical’s book was written by Terrence McNally, its lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, the latter two had worked together on the original 1997 film, earning several Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.
The story, partially reworked from its source, revolved around an amnesiac orphan named Anya, played by Lila Coogan, who is searching for her family and roots, not realizing that her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna who was played by Brianna Abruzzo, had fled Russia for Paris, France. Anya would run into two con-men, Dmitry and Vlad, played by Stephen Brower and Edward Staudenmayer respectively, who want to convince the Dowager that Anya is in fact Anastasia.
The film’s mystical villain, Rasputin, has been replaced with General Gleb Vaganov, whose father apparently helped execute Anya’s family and later Gleb desires to kill Anya to honor his father. While Dmitry and Anya fall in love later on, Gleb reveals he has fallen for Anya too, and questions his mission.
Stretching across two acts, the musical started to overstay its welcome midway through the first act, juggling many songs, time of which could have been otherwise used to have more genuine storytelling.
Anya and Dmitry’s chemistry was difficult to grasp, with Anya being portrayed as headstrong and blunt which somewhat fell flat as it became a challenge to root for her and her struggle to find her family. Dmitry did not seem to exude charm and charisma immediately too. Gleb’s developing feelings for Anya were also hard to acknowledge as he was not an intriguing villain to begin with.
For a musical that was supposed to portray Anya, Dmitry and Vlad as racing towards Paris to both find Anya’s last living family member and inadvertently avoid Gleb, it felt glacial. Certain songs felt unnecessary too, especially the entire Neva Nightclub sequences which deviated far from Anya’s storyline. It almost became a luxury to see Anya onstage.
Two other scenes were especially troubling. The first, Dmitry literally stepped on the Dowager’s dress to stop her from leaving when she refused to believe Anya was Anastasia, the shocking action yielded gasps from the audience. The second, after Gleb finally confronted Anya with a gun but decided against killing her, the musical acted like that scene did not happen at all, as it then ended on a happy-ending note right afterwards. This jarring tone and scene change further made Gleb truly feel like an unexciting villain.
But the props, set changes and overall production were majestic in nature. The interactive train sequence was a highlight as an actual train compartment outline was used to simulate the vehicle, which sometimes maneuvered to show different angles. There was also a splendid sequence where “The Swan Lake” was performed to Anya, the Dowager and Dmitry within the musical. The cast’s vocals were also triumphant, the best examples including Staudenmayer who channeled Vlad’s deep hyper-masculine voice with comic relief, and Coogan as Anya who ended the first act with a powerful “Journey to the Past” rendition.
“Anastasia” offered a visually dazzling feast but its characters’ characterizations and storyline sometimes did not meet their marks. But fear not, the 1997 film is still accessible which was a more charming take on the Anastasia legend.