Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The show is based on the story of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, who was murdered along with the rest of the Romanov family during the Russian revolution, but wholegend has itactually escaped but forgot who she was due to amnesia. The plot, based in part on the 1997 animated film of the same name (and several other prior tellings of the tale), is as ridiculous and charming as one might expect for a saga of an amnesic girl who is persuaded by flattering con men that she could be the heir to a royal fortune. Don't expect intricate plot turns or richly imagined characters, but rather an entirely pleasant evening of escape into a fantasy of pursuing big dreams against big odds.
As the curtain rises, it's 1906, and eight-year-old Anastasia (Delilah Rose Pellow) is upset that her Nana, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), is quitting Russia for Paris, leaving the girl a music box that plays a haunting melody, "Once Upon a December," a lovely refrain that is heard again and again over the course of the show. (The music is by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and the book was crafted by Terrence McNally.) Nana leaves and soon it's 1917, as Bolsheviks storm the Romanov palace in St. Petersburg, executing the entire family. Or did they?
Another ten years pass and Anya (Lila Coogan) is struggling to survive by sweeping the streets of what is now Leningrad, where everyone lives under the thumb of Gleb Vaganov (Jason Michael Evans), a Soviet apparatchik working to root out all the counter-revolutionary elements in the citywhich include Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), a pair of con artists who see in Anya both a way out of Russia and the chance to cash in on the reward being offered by the Dowager Empress for the return of her granddaughter Anastasia.
Anya remembers little of who she is or where she came from, but under the tutelage of Dmitry and Vlad, she becomes enmeshed in what Vlad calls "the biggest con of them all," and is surprised to uncover memories that soon have her believing she might actually be Anastasia after all. In act two, the trio will head off to Paris to see if the con can make them all rich. That is, if Comrade Gleb doesn't bring an end to their scheme.
The performances are nicely balanced, with predictably strong vocals from an experienced cast. (Though the most thrilling voice of the night belongs to Brad Greer, who plays both Count Ipolitov and Count Gregory, lending a high, piercing tenor that put me in mind of a Red Army Chorus soloist belting the sustained high notes of a Russian folk song like "Kalinka.") Staudenmayer has a resonant bass that he puts to good use whenever he needs to add a touch of gravitas to his con, and Brower has a sweet charm in playing the tender moments between his character and Anya.
But it's the set and projections that provide the evening's biggest thrills. The designs are beautifully realized and the resolution so precise that it is hard to tell where the projections end and the practical elements of the set begin. In scene after scene, each tableau seems more stunning than the last. From the massive file cabinets of a Soviet bureaucracy, to the animation of the train journey from Leningrad to Paris, to the cherry blossoms of France, to the gasp-inducing aerial reveal of the Eiffel Tower, every moment has a bit of magic to it, and the scenes transition so seamlessly that the 2.5 hour running time seems to fly by. Alexander Dodge gets credit for the scenic design, with projections by Aaron Rhyne. Linda Cho created the gorgeous costumes, and it all falls under the spell of Donald Holder's lighting design.
And then there's the truly lovely staging of a ballet within the show, a bit of Swan Lake with Lyrica Woodruff thrilling the audience as Odette. It alone is almost worth the price of admission.
From a strictly dramatic viewpoint, Anastasia lacks real heft. I first saw the show in New York during its run at the Broadhurst Theatre, where I was under-impressed. But in SHN's Golden Gate Theatre (almost exactly twice as capacious as the Broadhurst), the sheer spectacle comes blazing off the stage, making it one of the most eye-popping works of theatre San Francisco has seen in some time. Darko Tresnjak directs the tour, as he did the Broadway production.
Anastasia, through September 29, 2019, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56 to $256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit anastasiathemusical.com.