Anastasia @ Broadway in Chicago's James Nederland Theatre

4 out of 4 stars

Anastasia is a dazzling adventure filled with romance and history sure to have you leaving the theater lighter and brighter than before. Playing for a limited two-week engagement at Broadway In Chicago’s James M. Nederland Theatre through April 7th, 2019. From the Tony Award®-winning creators of the Broadway classic Ragtime, this new show transports you from the fall of the Russian Empire to the euphoria of Paris in the 1920s, as a brave young woman sets out to discover the mystery of her past. Pursued by a ruthless Soviet officer determined to silence her, Anya enlists the aid of a dashing conman and a lovable ex-aristocrat. Together, they embark on an epic adventure to help her find home, love, and family.

The surprising part for many is to find out the truth behind the Romanov massacre and Russian Revolution. There is still the unsolved mystery of what happened to the missing Princess Anastasia. The change from St. Petersburg to naming the city Leningrad was huge for the Communist Party. The narrative is drenched with historical culture with gossip, spies, and big brother “comradery”. This 2017 Broadway hit features book by celebrated playwright Terrence McNally and direction by Tony Award® winner Darko Tresnjak. McNally creatively and smartly adapted this work that really includes so much more story through weaving together fantasy and reality.

The 1997 animated film directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman is often mistaken for an official Disney princess movie based on its popularity and Don Bluth’s close relationship with Disney, but in fact is a 20th Century Fox movie with a star studded cast including Meg Ryan, Angela Landsbury, Christopher Lloyd, John Cusack and Kelsey Grammer. Many young girls have fallen in love with the lost Princess and Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) expand the original score wonderfully. 

The Academy Award-nominated favorite “Journey to the Past” alongside new numbers contribute to a holistic work that shines. The musical arrangement spans from familiar tunes to quirky additions and haunting melodies. Tari Kelly (Countess Lily) and Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad) hilariously enchant audiences by giving a taste of an underbelly of scandal with their past fling at the Imperial court and the jest at growing old. While also including mirrored reprises of Communist party perspectives contrasted against the common man’s. The production removes the nostradamus Rasputin, but does not fully remove the imperative focus on Russian being a strongly religious based country until the Revolution. By adding baddy Gleb, the Soviet officer played by Jason Michael Evans, there is a direct foil against Dmitry, the pauper con-man. Evans performs with vigor and his control in vibrato and projection is hair-raising. By adding these historically based characters the narrative is streamlined and easier to digest. This concept of the common man fleeing their countries before the borders close is heart wrenching. Immigrant guilt as solemn and haunting as the ghosts the past. The new musical has played to sold out crowds on Broadway since officially opening in April 2017, in addition to garnering multiple Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards and nominations. 

Within the first opening sequences, the transitional use of projections was incredible by comparing the sound of a flash bulb from an antiquated camera to the sound of canons and gunshots was very impressive . The enthralling scene changes draw upon every fantasy and suspend time and space. Projections are cleverly used throughout the production to create seasons and travel transitions. The digital realm gives a wide ability to expand the physical realm that theater used to be limited by in set design. The color palette additionally aids to clearly reflect beautiful blooming tree groves to stoic intimidating buildings, as well as internal conflicts and romantic scenes. Overall, Alexander Dodge (scene design), Donald Holder (lighting design), and Aaron Rhyne (projection design) all deserve high praise for making such a large scale environment feel so tangible. 

The visuals are stunning, but what I was most taken with was the exquisite costume design by Linda Cho. The attention to detail with the infamous Romanov family portrait with their clothing is so impressive. Every sparkle and jewel convinces you that Russian royalty is walking about on that stage. The incomparable Joy Franz encompasses grace and poise as the Dowager Empress, grandmother to Anastasia. Franz is a seasoned professional with multiple Broadway roles under her belt. Her presence and performance was enchanting with a voice that connects so well to the audience’s empathy. 

Cultural additions in dance sequences were particularly lively as well traditional Russian sarafan dresses with huge kokoshnik tiaras and men sporting kosovorotka shirts. Additionally, 1920’s Paris was executed perfectly not only with costuming true to location and time period, but with choreography. All of the blocking and dance sequences were wonderful. 

Unlike the 1997 film, this production provides unique insights to the other character’s thoughts and personalities. There is a heavier focus on Dimitry’s backstory, how everyone was effected differently by the fall of the Romanov’s, and Anya finding her voice. You fall in love with each character and feel a strong pull to these strangers all flung together by political impact. Stephen Brower (Dmitry) gives a powerful performance in the heart-racing “My Petersburg”. Brower made his Broadway debut in the New York production earlier this spring, from a vacation cover to ensemble “Demitry” understudy and had the chance to perform the role. This is his third national tour with previous credits with Pippin (swing, u/s “Pippin” and “Lewis”) and An American in Paris (ensemble, eventually assuming the role of “Adam Hochberg”). 

Playing opposite Brower is Lila Coogan as the spunky heroine Anya. They share a heartfelt duet entitled “A Crowd of Thousands” against a starlight backdrop. Brower’s power and Coogan’s clarity blend well and their range complement each other brilliant. Coogan’s talent lies within her ability for subtle character changes throughout the performance. Within a My Fair Lady moment, Anya is learning the Romonav family history and the costuming was very Victorian almost along with a giant chalkboard with an emphasis on learning how to be royal.  As the story unfolds, we witness Anya transform from a victim to a survivor.

The musical has something for everyone – the history, the love interests, a princess in disguise. The performance is an intellectual and enticing work which explores not only the beloved story of hope and happiness but of the complexity during this time in Russia. This performance holds moments of homage (even down to the name Bartok written in Russian on a storefront giving a moment to the funny sidekick Bat in the 1997 film), but it truly a powerhouse in its own right. With such rich source material from animated film to history, this production really takes the bones and heart of the original story and gives it flesh and blood.

Anastasia is playing for a limited two-week engagement at the James M. Nederland Theatre ( 24 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL 60601) through April 7th, 2019. For more information, visit www.anastasiabroadway.com/tour/

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!