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Alison Broverman: ‘Anastasia’ the musical draws its musical core from the cartoon, but with a realism twist

There is plenty of dramatic inspiration to be found in the legacy of the Romanovs, and in the stories of the many imposters who tried to lay claim to the Romanov fortune over the years. The latest to try to mine these rich fault lines is Anastasia, running at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto until Jan. 12.

 The stage musical is based on the 1997 animated film of the same name, which in turn was inspired by a 1956 film, which was based on a 1952 play about an amnesiac who bears a strong resemblance to the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolavena of Russia. Anastasia, who may or may not have died with the rest of her family when the Romanovs were murdered during the Russian Revolution in 1917, was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicolas II. The generally accepted history is that she did not survive, but that prospect wouldn’t have exactly provided inspiration for a whole slew of books, plays and movies, now would it?

 A cartoon might seem as though it would make for unlikely source material, but animation’s connection to the stage is more established than one might initially imagine.

Of course, The Lion King has had multiple productions surpass the $1-billion mark including the original Broadway run which opened in 1997. By the 20th anniversary of that production, the musical had grossed more than $8 billion in total. Before that, Beauty and the Beast’s initial run included more than 5,000 shows. More recently, Shrek The Musical had a year-long run on Broadway before premiering in London and spreading internationally with productions across Europe, South America and Asia. Perhaps the most iconic children’s musical of all time, Annie, was itself based on the popular comic strip Little Orphan Annie. Its original Broadway production ran for nearly six years, going on to spawn countless more productions, revivals and tours.

Lila Coogan (Anya) & Jake Levy (Dmitry) in National Tour of Anastasia. Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

That’s not to suggest there’s no risk in adapting animation to the stage. For every Lion King there’s a Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which was the costliest Broadway production ever. Although, critical reception and box-office numbers eventually became more favourable, the musical failed to cover its $75-million budget. The production seemed cursed from the get-go. Actors were injured, opening night was repeatedly delayed and the show was even paused for a month so it could be retooled as more producers, writers and a creative consultant were added.

If choosing to adapt from an animated source carries with it a risk, one way to mitigate it is with a stellar creative team. Anastasia achieves this through playwright Terrance McNally (credited with the book) alongside Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), the same team behind the excellent 1996 musical Ragtime. Comparisons to that production, an epic examination of American life at the turn of the last century (adapted from the E.L. Doctorow historical novel), are probably a little unfair.

Anastasia is neither as serious nor as sweeping in subject matter. Despite being reined in a little by the the source material — the show mostly glosses over the dark history of the Russian Revolution — Anastasia provides a lot of fun with its music, adding 16 new songs to six from the original.

The show opens with a prologue: The little princess Anastasia is saying goodbye to her beloved grandmother, the Dowager Empress (a regal Joy Franz), who is moving to Paris. A dreamy dance ensues, with the Romanovs all in white, oblivious in their ballroom as the Russian revolutionaries approach.

Cut to 10 years later, as St. Petersburg is renamed Leningrad. In the show’s catchiest number, “There’s a Rumour in St. Petersburg,” we meet Dmitri and Vlad, a charming pair of con artists who plan to take advantage of the rumour that Anastasia secretly survived the attack on her family. They’ll find an appropriately-aged young woman to train and then take to Paris. An amnesiac orphaned street sweeper named Anya fits the bill perfectly. But do her haunted nightmares about the Romanovs (and the fact that she instinctively knows how to open a music box) mean she’s actually the real deal?

The original 1997 cartoon, which was directed by Gary Goldman and Don Bluth leaned heavily into the fairy tale aspect of the story in order to off-set any criticism about the story’s historical accuracy — or lack thereof. For example, Rasputin, is portrayed as a literal demon who has cursed the Romanov family and has a singing bat sidekick.

The stage adaptation pulls the story slightly back towards realism — a clever choice when pulling from animation. Instead of an undead Rasputin and a talking bat, the bad guy in pursuit of Anya is a Bolshevik soldier named Gleb. He may or may not be in love with her, but is, in any case, honour-bound to kill her.

The sets consist primarily of giant screens that show whatever backdrop happens to be necessary. It’s efficient, to be sure, but felt a little unimaginative and repetitive to me. Nevertheless, someone in my row at a recent staging was audibly impressed over each projection.

Ahrens and Flaherty’s enjoyable score and a few lively performances are the highlights of the production. Jake Levy is a winning Dmitri, and Edward Staudenmeyer’s energetic performance as the con man Vlad keeps things moving along nicely. He and Tari Kelly (as an aging and exiled Russian aristocrat) give it their all to provide (broad but welcome) comic relief. 

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