‘Anastasia’ musical wins hearts

Touring production is a visual buffet
‘Anastasia’ musical wins hearts
Photo by Eric Zimmerman
The ghosts of the royal family are just one of the cool effects on offer in “Anastasia.”

Anastasia may have missed out on being included in the official pantheon of Disney princesses — the Disney-Fox merger came a couple decades too late, sadly — but the fabled Romanov royal certainly gets the majestic treatment in the touring production of “Anastasia,” playing through this weekend in the Overture Center for the Arts’ Overture Hall.

Terrence McNally and Stephen Flaherty’s 2017 musical echoes the 1997 animated film version, although it makes several key departures (and no, we’re not taking about Meg Ryan’s voice work and the lack of an animated bat). The story is essentially the same.

After surviving the bloody Bolshevik revolution that claimed the other members of her royal fam, Anya (an energetic Lila Coogan), now a street sweeper with a bad case of amnesia, gets caught up with Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), a couple of con men looking for a ticket out of Russia. Together, they travel to Paris to convince Anastasia’s grandma, the dowager empress (Joy Franz) that she’s not just the latest in a never-ending line of grubbing impostors pretending to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Coogan, Brower and Staudenmayer’s interplay feels natural and breezy, kind of like the stars of a classic Hollywood road movie, whether they’re dodging Bolsheviks or crashing the nobility in France. The budding romance between Anya and Dmitry seems affected right up until the point when it doesn’t: “In a Crowd of Thousands,” the second-act song in which they realize they shared a moment together as children, is genuinely touching, showcasing both actors’ expressive vocals.

As Vladimir, the former Russian courtier reduced to running cons in the St. Petersburg streets, Staudenmayer grounds his scenes with gravitas. His voice, a gravelly, booming thing, would have sounded just as appropriate in an animated flick as it does here.

Physical comedy, rather than elaborate choreography, drives most of the fun here. In the first act, it comes in the form of “Learn to Do It,” a madcap number where Vlad and Dmitry attempt to give Anya a crash course in Romanov history while also teaching her to dance. Even better is “The Countess and the Common Man,” a hysterical second-act pas de deux between Vlad and the Countess Lilly (Madison ‘s own Tari Kelly) that’s charged with both sexuality and gut-busting humor. Staudenmayer and Kelly’s chemistry and comic timing are perfect.

The show’s projections create some serious jaw-dropping visual magic. They add punch to the opening scene of revolution, with fiery explosions turning the grated windows outside Tsar Nicholas II’s palace a bloody red. Later, they evoke surprisingly convincing three-dimensional images of everything from the back alleys and bureaucratic enclaves of St. Petersburg to palaces in Paris and the haunting ghosts of Anya’s family. One of the best scenes involves a train car that rotates. There’s only one point in the show where the projection tricks seem forced, and given modern musicals’ increasing reliance on this kind of tech wizardry, that’s saying something.

Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), the Bolshevik son of the officer who put bullets in the rest of the Romanov family, is the Javert of this story, pursuing our would-be princess to the ends of the Earth — or at least to Paris — to finish the job his father started. Bur Gleb is more of a paper tiger than malevolent threat, which is a recurring theme throughout the show: the threats don’t really seem all that threatening, and most of them disappear in the blink of a single scene. After all, we expect a tidy romantic ride, and no obstacles — logical, financial or otherwise — are going to derail it.

As princess fantasies go, this version of “Anastasia” checks more than enough boxes to win audience hearts. Happily ever after still manages to feel magical — even if it has to overcome amnesia.

Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.