When Disney began a long series of successful Broadway adaptations of some of its biggest animated hits, it was only a matter of time before theatrical producers saw an opportunity to adapt animated films from other studios. The first of these was the Tony-nominated "Shrek The Musical" in 2008, followed more recently by "Anastasia,” an adaptation of the 1997 Don Bluth animated feature of the same name.
Even as “Anastasia” completes its Broadway run, it has embarked on a national tour, now playing in Austin at Bass Concert Hall (courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts) through Feb. 17. The musical, though, is not a direct translation of the film to the stage. Rather, composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and playwright Terrence McNally (a team whose previous collaborations include the acclaimed "Ragtime") stripped the story of the supernatural elements that dominated much of the original film, emphasizing instead the historical elements of the text.
Unfortunately, the end result is an uneven, plodding script with few memorable songs, several wild tonal shifts throughout and an almost offensively bad take on actual history. The biggest problem with this version of “Anastasia” is that it attempts to wed an animated fairy tale — one that blatantly disregarded historical fact — with a realistic portrayal of Russian politics, and the mash-up simply does not work.
“Anastasia” tells the story of Anya, a young Russian girl with amnesia who turns out to be the sole survivor of the 1918 execution of the country's ruling Romanov family by Bolshevik revolutionaries. This is based on legends regarding the historical Anastasia’s survival, which several hoaxers took advantage of during the course of the 20th century. While the animated film pits its mythical version of Anastasia against a resurrected Rasputin, portrayed as an evil wizard with magical powers, the stage adaptation instead creates a new antagonist in the form of Gleb, a Bolshevik general.
What results, then, is a story that compares a Disney-esque portrayal of perfect royalty to the tyranny of communist rule, creating a naïve political narrative that feels extremely pro-monarchy while at the same time espousing an anti-socialist message with all the subtlety of Cold War-era agitprop. This also means that scenes of glamorous balls end up startlingly juxtaposed against moments of violence in alarming shifts in tone that don’t feel entirely intentional.
One has time to consider the larger political messages of “Anastasia” because so much of the show is slow, plodding and on the whole rather boring. Though Lila Coogan, as Anya, and Stephen Brower, as love interest Dmitry, are strong performers, they feel wooden throughout because neither the story, the songs nor director Darko Tresnjak give them anything interesting to do besides mope and swoon.
Fortunately, there are a few bright spots in the play, notably the performances of Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad and Tari Kelly as Countess Lily, the comic relief side characters who bring much-needed life to the stage. Additionally, the production design is a constant feast of eye candy, particularly the ways in which Alexander Dodge’s scenic design merge and meld with Aaron Rhyne’s remarkably effective and immersive projection design.
“Anastasia,” in the end, doesn’t know what it wants to be — a fairy tale, a serious look at the Bolshevik revolution or a simple romantic comedy. In attempting to become all three of these things, it ends up succeeding at none of them.