The music from Anastasia (and by this, I mean the 1997 animated movie musical) has a special place in my heart, for it was the first movie to which we took our daughter. I remember when we saw it: I liked the music, but the villain in the story was far too comical, and I always felt guilty watching it because it made you cheer for the Czar and his family, when … well, remember those Jews being kicked out of their home in Fiddler on the Roof? That was happening at the request of the Czar. Anastasia was also the musical that introduced me to the music of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (FB). From there, I found Once on this Island, and Ragtime and Suessical and Lucky Stiff and …
So when I learned they were adapting Anastasia into a musical for the stage, I was intrigued. It opened to mixed reviews, but I was sure it was going to tour. I got the album, and found the songs a bit slower than the animated feature. But still, I wanted to see it. Luckily, it was the first show of the 2019-2020 Hollywood Pantages (FB) Season… and so you know where we were last night.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it is based on the true story of Czar Nicholas II, who was executed in the Russian Revolution of 1918. After the execution, rumors persisted that his daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived. The entire musical is based on that rumor: after establishing the basis of the story and the Czar (and the execution), the action moves to St. Petersburg (Leningrad), where the rumor is circulating. Two schemes plot to find an Anastasia impersonator and sell her to her grandmother living in Paris. They find this young women, Anya, who has no memory of her past but conveniently seems to have snippets that suggest she might be the real thing. Enough practice, and …. off to Paris they go.
But every scheme needs a foil to create drama, and to put difficulties in the way of our protagonists.
In the animated movie, which featured a screenplay by Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, and Noni White, with story by Eric Tuchman (animation adaptation), based on Anastasia by Arthur Laurents and Anastasia by Marcelle Maurette, that foil was Grigori Rasputin, recreated as comically magic and evil, and his anthropomorphic bat assistant, Bartok. But this isn’t Disney, and silly foils like that don’t work. So when the story was reworked by Terrence McNally, he changed the antagonist to a Bolshevik officer, General Gleb Vaganov: a man who both has a crush on Anya, as well as being the son of the guards that shot the Romanov family. His superiors want all traces of the Russian family gone (yet, for some reason, they don’t go after the Dowager Empress in Paris), and order him after them. So he’s torn between carrying out his father’s destiny, and his affection for the girl.
This being a musical, and being a fairy tale, you can guess what happens. Is Anastasia dead? Not so long as she lives in our hearts, right?
The stage musical also keeps some of the elements related to the two men who help Anya become Anastasia: Dmitry still has a connection as a boy to the younger Anastasia; “Count” Vlad Popov still has a connection and past relationship to Countess Lily (Sophie in the movie), the lady-in-waiting of the Dowager Empress in Paris. In fact, Vlad provides some of the best comic relief in the story, both in his interactions with the main trio of Dmitry and Anya, and especially in his interactions with Lily.
The movie was also very fast paced, with a total of 8 songs. They kept 4-5 of those, and added loads of new songs, although many of them use the same underscoring as the original 4-5. This, along with the pace, makes the show feel a bit slower paced.
This is an expansive story, going back and forth in time constantly, and moving from Russia to Paris. It took a creative director to address that, and director Darko Tresnjak (FB) it in a creative way: he eschewed loads of traditional sets, and working closely with scenic designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, leaned heavily into the projection approach to scenic design. The main background and side pillars were HD projection systems, and these were constantly changing, creating beautiful 3-D scenic locals, moving landscapes, even background expositions. Sometimes they were a bit too cartoonish, and at times were a bit too much in motion. A larger concern I have with the projection approach is the limitations this creates for the long life of the show. Regional theatres might have the needed projection technology, but this limits their creativity in the realization of the show. Smaller theatres and high schools? They won’t have it, and will they be able to create the backdrops for the story? I’m unsure, and this could be a problem for the life of this property. Perhaps one day the musical Anastasia will also be rumor.
The performances were mostly good. In the lead positions were Lila Coogan (FB) Anya / Anastasia and Jake Levy (FB) Dmitry. Both are newish actors, and did wonderfully bringing that youthful joy to the roles. We’ve seen Levy before back in the UCLA production of Steel Pier, and enjoyed him then. Coogan brought loads of spunk and fun to the role; in her pixie haircut at the top of Act II, I could just see her doing a great Kathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain. These two were loads of fun.
Also strong was the comic second bananas: Edward Staudenmayer (FB) Vlad and Tari Kelly (FB) Countess Lily. Staudenmayer was strong in all his numbers: funny, and with a great voice, great moves, and wonderful comic timing. Kelly also had that comic touch, especially in “Land of Yesterday” and her duet with Staudenmayer, “The Countess and the Comic Man”. The show is almost worth their performances along.
If there was a weak point in the casting, it was Jason Michael Evans (FB) Gleb. He just didn’t have the strength of voice or project the right gravitas to be villainous. He did OK in his main number, “The Neva Flows” and “Still”, but it wasn’t the powerhouse it needs to be.
Rounding out the major roles was Joy Franz (FB) Dowager Empress. She had a lovely voice, and captured the conflicting emotions of the Dowager Empress wonderfully.
Rounding out the background in various roles was the extremely talented ensemble and swings: Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr (FB) Ensemble; Ashlee Dupré (FB) Ensemble, Olga Romanov, Odette in Swan Lake; Kylie Victoria Edwards (FB) Ensemble, Maria Romanov, Marfa; Alison Ewing (FB) Ensemble, Countess Gregory; Hannah Florence (FB) Swing; Peter Garza (FB) Ensemble, Russian Doorman; Fred Inkley (FB) / Jeremiah Ginn (FB)¤ Ensemble, Gorlinsky, Count Leopold; Brett-Marco Glauser (FB) Ensemble; Brad Greer (FB) Ensemble, Tzar Nicholas II, Count Ipolitov, Count Gregory; Tamra Hayden (⭐FB, FB) Ensemble; Lucy Horton (FB) Ensemble, Tzarina Alexandra; Kourtney Keitt (FB) / Sareen Tchekmedyian (FB)¤ Ensemble, Tatiana Romanov, Dunya; Mark MacKillop (⭐FB, FB) / Kenneth Michael Murray (⭐FB, FB)¤ Ensemble, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake; Ryan Mac (⭐FB, FB) Ensemble; Delilah Rose Pillow / Eloise Vaynshtokº Little Anastasia, Alexei Romanov; Taylor Quick (FB) Ensemble, Young Anastasia, Paulina; Matt Rosell (FB) Ensemble; and Lyrica Woodruff (FB) Ensemble, Olga Romanov, Odette in Swan Lake. All were strong dancers, and had great facial expressions and movement for their characters.
¤ indicates swing who swung into this role at our performance; ° indicates performs Saturday matinee and Sunday evening.
Dance and movement in the show, which was choreographed by Peggy Hickey (FB), was in general strong, especially in the palace dance numbers and the ballet numbers. Other dance related credits: David Chase Dance Arrangements; Bill Burns (FB) Assoc Choreographer; Jeff Barry Fight Director; Kenneth Michael Murray (⭐FB, FB) Dance Captain; and Rachel E. Winfield (FB) Fight Captain.
As noted earlier, the show featured music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, with orchestrations by Doug Besterman and vocal arrangements by Stephen Flaherty. Tom Murray was the Music Supervisor. Lawrence Goldberg served as music director and conductor of the orchestra, which consisted of (🌴 indicates LA local): Valerie Gebert Asst Conductor, Keyboard 2; Ryan Sigurdson (FB) Keyboard I; 🌴 Jen Choi Fischer (FB) Violin / Concertmistress; 🌴 Grace Oh (FB) Violin/Viola; 🌴 Ira Glansbeek Cello; 🌴 Ian Walker (FB) Bass; 🌴 Jeff Driskill (FB) Flute / Piccolo / Clarinet / Alto Sax; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Clarinet / Flute / Tenor Sax / Oboe / English Horn; 🌴 Aaron Smith (FB) Trumpet / Flugelhorn; 🌴 Laura Brenes (FB) French Horn; 🌴 Charlie Morillas (FB) Tenor Trombone; and 🌴 Bruce Carver Percussion. Other music credits: Mary Ekler (🎼FB, FB) Keyboard Sub; 🌴 Eric Heinly (FB) Orchestra Contractor; Michael Aarons (FB) Music Coordinator; Randy Cohen (FB) Keyboard Programmer. Overall, the orchestra had a very lush sound and sounded great.
Finally, turning to production and creative side. I’ve already talked about the scenic and projection design of scenic designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, and how it was both creative, and may prove to be a hindrance when this gets to the regional and local production level. Peter Hylenski (FB)’s sound design was reasonably clear for the Pantages, although some words in the songs were lost in the cavernous space. Donald Holder‘s lighting design established mood and such well, but at times was in competition with the projections. Linda Cho‘s costume design, Charles G. LaPointe‘s Wig/Hair Designs, and Joe Dulude II‘s makeup designs combined to make the actors into the characters they needed to be. Other production credits: Telsey + Company (FB) Casting; Richard A. Leigh (FB) Production Stage Manager; Rachel E. Winfield (FB) Stage Manager; Ellen Goldberg (FB) Asst Stage Manager; Denny Daniello Company Manager; Aurora Productions Production Management; RCI Theatricals General Manager; Bond Theatrical Group Tour Marketing and Publicity Direction; The Booking Group Tour Booking Agency; and Dmitry Bogachev Commissioned By. That last credit is perhaps the most interesting: Bogachev is CEO of the theatre company “Moscow Broadway LLC”, founder of the Russian division of the international live entertainment company Stage Entertainment, member of The Broadway League, initiator of the Broadway business model in Russian theatre. Could Anastasia be big in the post-Bolshevik Russian market?
Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through October 27. Tickets are available through the Pantages website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and TodayTix. The musical is entertaining, although with the young touring cast a few performances can be a bit stronger. Overall the show was entertaining, although not that intellectually deep or historically accurate. Don’t think about it too much, and you’ll be OK.
I like to say that I’m a professional audience, and that’s why I like theatre. In my real life, I’m a cybersecurity subject matter expert — an engineer. I don’t have the creativity in me to inhabit other characters, and in general, the writing I do is limited to non-fiction — government documents and policies, highway pages, and reviews like these. I don’t have the ability to take an idea and turn it into characters and stories that might be compelling to an audience. But as I just noted, I’m also a long time cybersecurity professional, and attending years of the Hollywood Fringe Festival has convinced me that the medium of the stage could be used to teach about cybersecurity in a way that audiences could learn, without being overwhelmed with technology. The notion I have is to take some broad cybersecurity themes and concepts and translate them into stories that could teach in a compelling way. But I don’t have the expertise to build a story out of the idea. If this is something that might interest you, please let me know. I don’t have funds for a commission or anything like that, but it might be something we could turn into a property beneficial for all.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
The third weekend of October brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), followed by In Trousers at the Lounge Theatre from Knot Free Productions. October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) and the MoTAS Poker Tournament.
Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at Actors Co-op (FB), followed by Big Daddy the Band of 1959 at McCabes (FB) in Santa Monica.. The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). November concludes with Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks.
December is relatively open right now, given that we lose two weekends to ACSAC, and the small theatres are often darker around the holidays. The first weekend (before ACSAC) may bring an outing of our new live theatre group at our synagogue to Eight Nights at the Anteaus Theatre Company (FB). I do have a hold for December 17 for Elf at Canyon Theatre Guild. I also have a hold for mid-January for What The Constitution Means To Me at the Mark Taper Forum, but I’m waiting for the presale to start to confirm that date. January will also bring Frozen at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and Cirque Éloize at the Soraya/VPAC (FB). I’m already booking well into 2020.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!