WASHINGTON, D.C. – On July 17, 1918, a Bolshevik firing squad brutally killed Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, together with his wife, four young daughters and son.
Five members of the Romanov family, including daughter Anastasia, were dug up in 1991, formally identified using DNA samples, and reburied in a St. Petersburg cathedral.
The discovery ended years of speculation of whether Anastasia had somehow miraculously escaped her family’s horrific fate. (The family members were wearing bullet-proof vests, but were then bayoneted, burned and covered with acid).
Over the years, numerous fake ‘Anastasias’ had shown up, claiming to be the 17-year-old Grand Duchess, known for her spunky and fun-loving personality.
An animated movie about the duchess premiered in 1997, and a Broadway musical opened to acclaim in April 2017. The touring show has now landed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts brings it with an immensely talented cast, sweeping orchestral music and all the other bells and whistles associated with an epic production.
It includes a lavish and opulent set, gorgeous costumes and digital scenery projected onto a background that brilliantly simulates a speeding train, ghosts, St. Petersburg, Paris, etc.
For the audience, the show works beautifully if you put aside the macabre story of the real Anastasia’s ending and view it as a fairytale rewrite of history in which the story ends on a much happier note. According to the show’s website, the musical is about discovering who you are and defining who you are meant to be.
That said, the storyline about an orphan with amnesia who comes to believe that she is the real Anastasia works, particularly when the teen, named Anya, seems to come to remember so many intimate and personal details about events that occurred in the life of the real duchess. (It helps that Anya possesses a diamond that was sewn into her clothing when she was brought to a hospital, a reference about the diamonds sewn into the Romanov’s clothing when the tsar abdicated).
As Anya, Lila Coogan is captivating and believable, playing the orphan who only wants to connect with home and real family and who is convinced by two conmen, Dmitry and Vlad, (Stephen Brower and Edward Staudenmayer, respectively) that she may be the real Anastasia, rumored to have survived. The men, motivated by a huge reward, propose to help get her to Paris where she can be reunited with her beloved grandmother, the Dowager Empress (a dignified and maternal Joy Franz).
What is not in the cards is that Dmitry, who as an orphan at age 10 was smitten after glimpsing the real Anastasia, age 8, passing by in a carriage, will fall in love with Anya, who soon falls for him as well.
The storyline introduces a villian with the appearance of a communist police official, Gleb, (Jason Michael Evans) who meets Anya briefly on the streets and who also falls for her. When word gets out that she is claiming to be the lost Anastasia, he is torn between arresting her or putting her to death, a command that his father adhered to without hesitating as part of the guards who slaughtered the hated Romanovs.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ score passionately invokes the majesty of the Romanov era, and the musical’s beautiful waltz tempos and the upbeat songs will stay with you for days.
As Anya, Coogan’s voice is clear and strong in “In My Dreams” and in “A Secret She Kept,” and when paired with Brower on “My Petersburg,” the two particularly shine.
Staudenmayer brings a delightful comic role to the play as the former aristocrat turned-huckster who once wooed Countess Lily (Tari Kelly), the Dowager Empresses’ trusted assistant. Staudenmayer and Kelly’s laviscious reunion when they sing “The Countess and the Common Man” is one of the comic highlights in the show and eases some of the plot’s tension.
Choreographer Peggy Hickey wonderfully arranges the ballroom dance scenes and Linda Cho’s costumes stunningly capture the aristocratic clothing of that period. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design creatively projects a variety of settings, apt reason for earning an Outer Critics nomination for the Broadway production.
Peter Hylenski’s sound design was spot on for Opening Night, and every song could be heard perfectly clear. Conductor Lawrence Goldberg and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra were in fine form, and were deserving of the appreciative applause from the audience that left the theater beaming.
“Anastasia” runs through Nov. 25. For tickets, visit kennedycenter.org.