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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Mirvish’s Anastasia Is Thoroughly Enjoyable Musical Theatre

By Paula Citron on December 11, 2019

With a mostly intelligent script, attractive score, and mind-boggling projections, the musical Anastasia is a genuine and very enjoyable surprise.

Lila Coogan (Anya) & Jake Levy (Dmitry) in National Tour of ANASTASIA
Lila Coogan (Anya) & Jake Levy (Dmitry) in National Tour of ANASTASIA (Photo : Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

David Mirvish/Anastasia, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, directed by Darko Tresnjak, Ed Mirvish Theatre, Dec. 3, 2019 to Jan. 12, 2020. Tickets available at mirvish.com.

If you think the 2017 Broadway musical Anastasia is a recreation of the 1997 Fox (not Disney) animated film, think again. The latter featured supernatural elements built around the evil sorcerer Rasputin and his bat minion Bartok (yes bat), but all of that magical nonsense, aimed at children one supposes, has been excised by acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally. What is left is McNally’s mostly intelligent script, an exceedingly attractive score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and mind-boggling projections by Aaron Rhyne, that deservedly won a Drama Desk Award. In short, the musical Anastasia is a genuine and very enjoyable surprise.

The basic story is more or less the same. Grand Duchess Anastasia (Lila Coogan), the Tsar’s youngest daughter, has supposedly escaped the execution that wiped out the imperial Romanov family in 1917 following the Russian Revolution. Now called Anya and suffering from amnesia, she is a street sweeper who is picked up by two con men, Dmitry (Jake Levy) and former courtier Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), who want to transform her into Anastasia so they can collect the substantial reward offered by her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz). The gateway to the Empress is through her lady-in-waiting Countess Lily (Tari Kelly), with whom Vlad had an affair in the past. Replacing Rasputin as the villain is the Bolshevik agent Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), who has orders to kill Anastasia if she really is alive.

I say above that McNally’s book is mostly intelligent because he had to make room for de rigueur comic relief, namely the ditzy character of Countess Lily and her relationship with Vlad, and I find that kind of coy sexual humour to be silly. The rest of the script is tight, as it follows Anya/Anastasia’s transformation, her growing love for Dmitry, the despair of the Dowager Empress who is confronted by so many imposters, and scenes that move between solo inner feeling monologues, and large ensembles such as the poor on the streets of St. Petersburg, the train ride to France, and the Neva, the White Russian nightclub in Paris.

Jake Levy (Dmitry), Lila Coogan (Anya) and Ed Staudenmayer (Vlad) in National Tour of ANASTASIA
Jake Levy (Dmitry), Lila Coogan (Anya) and Ed Staudenmayer (Vlad) in National Tour of ANASTASIA (Photo : Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens were the team behind the monster hit musical Ragtime (1996), and although it might be considered old-fashioned, Flaherty and Ahrens actually write tunes that you can hum, and not the amorphous rock scores that dominate contemporary musicals, and that all sound the same. Flaherty and Ahrens contributed the songs for the 1997 animated film Anastasia, and those six, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past”, make it into the musical, along with sixteen new numbers. Several are musically Russian-flavoured, like the haunting anthem “Stay, I Pray You”, sung by the aristocrats and intellectuals whom the Bolsheviks are throwing out of the country. There are also some gorgeous choral numbers that reflect the glorious choral tradition of both Russian folk and liturgical music.

Flaherty and Ahrens are past masters at musical narrative. I knew I was going to have a good time at Anastasia within the first ten minutes. In one fell swoop, we get little Anastasia and her grandmother, a slightly older Anastasia at the grand ball, the Russian Revolution (through projected explosions), and the Russian population singing about the rumour that Anastasia is still alive. In other words, all the background stuff is got out of the way with a large-scale opening number, and all done in song and dance. Director Darko Tresnjak and his creative team should be congratulated for moving the soloists and ensemble through such a clever and detailed stage picture.

The set (Alexander Dodge), costume (Linda Cho) and lighting (Donald Holder) designs are certainly up to Broadway standards, but as mentioned before, Rhyne’s projections are absolutely stunning. Take the train ride, for example. As the carriage speeds along the track, the scenery flashes by, but the carriage keeps shifting direction to focus on the singing monologues of different characters, and the track and scenery directions change with it. Or the scene where Anastasia finally remembers the last ball at the palace. Behind the royal family and guests, the projections show the grand ballroom while ghostly figures are superimposed over them, whirling in time with the real people. The well-known exterior shots of St. Petersburg and Paris are impressive, as are the created interior ones, but it is how they flow together using various techniques, that make them eminently watchable. They switch, they rise, they fall, they override, in an amazing kaleidoscope of images.

Jake Levy (Dmitry) and Lila Coogan (Anya) in National Tour of ANASTASIA
Jake Levy (Dmitry) and Lila Coogan (Anya) in National Tour of ANASTASIA (Photo : Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

The ensemble singing is a bit uneven, but some of this is due to the fact that the cast is miked up the whazoo, which distorts the sound somewhat. Coogan as Anastasia is a tiny mite of thing, but has a huge voice. I only wish she could have used her natural soprano instead of moving into belting mode. There are some hearty operatic voices (Evans and Staudenmayer), but only Levy sounds suitably restrained. Nonetheless, Flaherty and Ahrens have left a lot of room for passion and the singing overall is very heartfelt. The cast does sweep the audience along with the story.

Choreographer Peggy Hickey has come up with a grand waltz for the Romanov ball, a high-energy Charleston for the Neva Club, and an eccentric mini-Swan Lake ballet for the first meeting between Anastasia and the Dowager Empress at Palais Garnier. Needless to say, in the latter case, Rhyne’s projections capture the opulent glory of Paris’ famed opera house. This sequence is also another example of the Flaherty/Ahrens acumen. As the ballet continues, the cast is in two boxes on opposite sides of the performance, and mixing Tchaikovsky’s music with Flaherty’s, Anya, Dmitry, Gleb and the Dowager Empress all get to sing their thoughts, at first alone and then together. It’s an impressive scene of musical forces. Incidentally, the Odette (Lyrica Woodruff) in Swan Lake does manage to toss off a couple of fouettés.

Anastasia has been on a long journey. French playwright Marcelle Maurette wrote her play Anastasia in 1952, which was adapted into English by Guy Bolton. Based on the play, Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay for the 1956 movie Anastasia, which gave Ingrid Bergman her second Oscar. A quartet of writers is credited with the 1997 animated movie script, with Terrence McNally writing the book for the 2017 musical version. Clearly, over the generations, the Anastasia myth has inspired the creative imagination, although we now know for certain that the Grand Duchess was executed with her family, and is now a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, along with her three sisters, Olga, Tatiana and Maria.

This thoroughly satisfying musical is a fitting tribute to Anastasia’s memory.

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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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