At the James M. Nederlander Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – In 1918, the Bolsheviks in Russia slaughtered the ruling Romanov family. However, there were soon rumors that the teen-age Grand Duchess Anastasia had survived the massacre, thus continuing the royal Romanov line, to the displeasure of the hostile Bolshevik government.

The possible survival of Anastasia became one of the great romantic “what-ifs” of the 20th century. The saga of Anastasia eventually inspired five motion pictures, a novel, and an autobiography allegedly written by the woman So. it was inevitable that her story would eventually inspire a musical adaptation, and sure enough, “Anastasia” opened on Broadway as a musical in 2017, closing recently after a nearly two-year run in spite of mixed reviews.

The musical was based on the 1956 historical film biography starring Ingrid Bergman and a 1997 animated version. The current show may have divided the critics but it gathered a considerable fan base of female adolescents, the audience that has sustained “Wicked” for decades. Judging by the large and enthusiastic audience on opening night (heavily populated by young females) at the Nederlander Theatre, its brief two-week run in the Loop is grossly inadequate. “Anastasia” may have its detractors, but its advocates are many and vociferous.

        Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman

The musical runs for a solid 2½ hours, basically subsisting on a single storyline–Is the young character in the title role (performed by Lila Coogan) really the royal original or an imposter groomed by a couple of Russian con men with their eye on sampling some of the giant fortune that survived the extermination of the Romanov family? The con men are an aristocrat named Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and his young partner Dmitry (Stephen Brower). The two audition a number of young Russian women, seeking one girl convincing enough to pass as the genuine article. Eventually Vlad and Dmitry come cross a young street sweeper named Anya who may fit the bill. The woman suffers from amnesia but she seems to know things that only the actual Anastasia could know.

Anna and her two handlers sneak out of Russia for Paris where they plan to meet with the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), living in gloomy royal splendor in Paris. The elderly woman is in constant mourning over the violent deaths of her family in the mother country, nursing the hope that rumors of Anastasia’s survival are true. If Vlad and Dmitri can convinced the Empress that their protégé is truly Anastasia, their fortunes are made.

Such a slender plot needs some beefing up to sustain a long musical so a Russian revolutionary named Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) is sent by the Bolsheviks from Russia to Paris to find and eliminate Anastasia, one way or another. Gleb is a communist firebrand but is also attracted to Anastasia in some deeply personal way that somehow eluded me. Meanwhile, Dmitri falls in love with Anastasia, injecting an additional dose of romantic tension.

Before itemizing the musical’s abundant imperfections, one should celebrate its major virtues. The greatest is a dazzling visual production that makes magnificent use of film and projection to dazzle the audience eye with spectacle. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge (with exceptional contributions from Aaron Rhyne) has done wonders in creating high tech photographic special effects, like magnificent panoramas of St. Petersburg and Paris and replicating a speeding train ride from Russia to France. There are snowfalls and fireworks and scenes involving the shimmering ghosts of the dead Romanovs. Add Linda Cho’s countless glamorous period costumes and Donald Holder’s imaginative lighting and the audience is treated to a really ravishing physical staging.

The score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) is filled with lush and expressive songs. The singing is generally first class, as is the acting. The tickets may be pricy but every production dollar is well spent. This presentation is of Broadway caliber by any artistic measuring stick.

Yet there are difficulties. As Anastasia, Lila Coogan has a strong voice but she sounded a little shrill on opening night. More problematic is the book by the usually reliable playwright Terrence McNally. His book seems to be indecisive about what kind of a show “Anastasia” wants to be. There are scenes that clearly mean to be taken seriously. And then there are scenes that rob the narrative of all its gravitas, especially when the bumptious Countess Lili (Tara Kelly) takes the stage.

     Photo Credit: Evan      Zimmerman

The Countess is the Empress’s secretary but she seems to have dropped in to the action from a 1930’s song and dance Broadway musical or perhaps the “I Love Lucy” TV show from the 1950’s. Many minutes of the final act descend into low comedy, led by Countess Lili cavorting and mugging through two extended production numbers silly enough to make the teeth ache. The serious matter of whether Anastasia is genuine and whether the Empress Dowager will accept her is shelved while the musical turns farcical.

The show’s creators have not hesitated to borrow from earlier hit musicals. The scene in which Vlad and Dmitry coach Anya  to become Anastasia is a pale borrowing from “My Fair Lady.” The departure of a group of Russians from their homeland to a new life in the West is cribbed from the “Anatevka” number from “Fiddler on the Roof.” The character of Gleb is molded on the implacable Inspector Javert from “Les Miserables.” Even “Journey to the Past,” Anastasia’s showcase song that ends the first act, seems to give a nod toward the scene stopper “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.”

“Anastasia” ends on a touchy feely romantic note while leaving the question of Anastasia’s legitimacy in a state of ambiguity. The credentials of “Anastasia” as a stunning visual production are beyond question. Audience satisfaction with the story will be determined by the viewer’s tolerance for an inconsistent book.  But on opening night, the enthusiasts definitely outweighed the naysayers.

Director Darko Tresnjak seems to have gotten what he wanted out of the Flaherty-Ahrens score, McNally’s book, and his talented and abundany cast of more than two dozen actors. His staging is abetted by Peggy Hickey’s choreography, which shifts gears from elegant ballroom dancing to the “Swan Lake” ballet to excessively broad comedy. All in all, “Anastasia” is good but not great, with extra points for the truly amazing special effects and costumes.

The show gets a rating of 

“Anastasia” runs through April 7 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Most performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30. Tickets are $27 to $123. For more information, visit


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