Playwright: Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. At: The James M Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets: BroadwayInChicago.com . Runs through: April 7
One of the first things I focused on while watching Anastasia at the Nederlander Theatre was Alexander Dodge's set, along with Aaron Rhyne's amazing projections, which are among the finest I've ever seen.
Dodge's design allows Rhyne's projections to take center stage. I'm not always a fan of computerized projections, but here they are used brilliantly to simulate movement around St. Petersburg and Paris and, in one enjoyable set piece, the train ride between the two cities. This is how projections ought to be used, and the set has just enough practical scenery to help them blend perfectly.
But the play is not merely a technological joy. Director Darko Tresnjak leads a very strong troupe of actors in this show as well. Based on the 1997 20th Century Fox film, it tells the speculative tale of Anastasia, the youngest child of the doomed Romanov family, who ( the film and play opine ) escaped the mass execution of the Czar's family by the Bolsheviks. Ten years later, a pair of con men trying to reap the reward for finding her alive latch onto a young woman named Anya ( Lila Coogan ) who may or may not actually be the lost princess and smuggle her out of St. Petersburg to Paris, where Anastasia's grandmother has set up a shadow court.
Coogan is wonderful as the possible Anastasia. Her sincerity paves the way for liking her and her bright voice does the rest. If she isn't the lost princess, you pretty much hope that she'll manage to capture the Dowager Empress's ( Joy Franz ) heart anyway. In familiar Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens songs like "Once Upon a December" and "Journey to the Past," she easily captures the audience's. As to the con men, Stephen Brower and especially Edward Staudenmayer have a great deal of fun characterizing these two sort-of scoundrels.
Brower, whose character Dmitry finds himself falling for Anya, is the more realistic of the two, while Staudenmayer's Vlad wants to be seen as larger than life as he romances Countess Lily ( Tari Kelly ), the Dowager Empress's lady in waiting. ( Kelly is an absolute hoot in two lively numbers in Act Two, and they make a good couple. ) Waiting in the wings is the Russian soldier Gleb ( Jason Michael Evans ), whose job it is to ascertain whether Anya is the real deal and, if she is, to kill her. He is not just a malevolent force, though. His powerful song about duty to his country, "The Neva Flows," helps set up his character's sympathetic side.
Anastasia is not a deep play, nor is it particularly historically accuratebut that is not its point. It doesn't want to tell the story of what was but what, in a better world, might have been. As such it is more wish fulfillment than anything else, but when you have strong performances, a rich McNally book, glorious Peggy Hickey choreography, that set, and catchy Flaherty/Ahrens songs along with an extremely likable main character, what else do you need? And the love story between Coogan and Brower's characters, which is a slow burn, works reasonably well too, though they are not really given enough time to make it completely believable. ( One second-act song pretty much stands in for the whole romance. ) Still, whether or not you are a fan of the animated film upon which it is based, you should be able to find something to like about Anastasia.