Review: ‘Anastasia’ finds its proper home in a powerful, top-talent Broadway show

It’s four songs into Anastasia before audiences are really introduced to Anya (Lila Coogan) the show’s female lead. Up until that point, a lot of years go by, and quickly too, jumping from 1906 to 1917 to our final destination, 1927.

And when audiences do finally get to meet Anya— done during the heart wrenching ballad, “In My Dreams” — they sure aren’t going to forget her any time soon.

At all of 5’1” (yes, I did look at her resume to see how tall she was) Coogan has one of the best, if not the best, voice I’ve heard this season at the Wharton Center. She’s a powerhouse on that stage, with a pure vocal quality that I could talk about for days, and I was excited every time she got to sing. Like really, truly excited, including during the aforementioned “In My Dreams.”

Have you ever heard a song start and felt your eyes get about as big as quarters as you stared in awe at what was happening onstage? That was me, and multiple people around me, when Coogan started singing that song. If Coogan doesn’t make you feel something, you might want to get your heart checked. Don’t be surprised if Coogan shows up on your TV sometime soon while she accepts her Tony Award. Yes, she’s just that good.

We should probably move onto the plot though. As mentioned, the majority of the musical — currently in the midst of its first national tour after making its Broadway debut in 2017 — takes place in 1927, years after the Romanov family meet their untimely fate.

There are rumors going around that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia somehow made it out while her family was being executed. Her grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz, who is spectacular), is still alive though, and hoping to find her granddaughter. Two con-men, Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), hear said rumor and come up with a plan: groom a young woman to pretend to be the beloved lost granddaughter, bring her to the Dowager in Paris, and get a huge reward.

This leads to the duo meeting Anya, a young woman with amnesia hoping to get to Paris, who seems like the perfect fit for their con. As the trio go on the adventure of a lifetime, they must also deal with a Soviet officer, Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a young man determined to silence Anya, who just wants to find her family.

Now, as much as I enjoyed the show, the ending just felt anti-climatic. There’s so much building up until this point but then it just, sort of, ends. It doesn’t feel complete, and left me wondering what exactly happened to the characters when all was said and done.

While the ending felt a little lackluster, the music throughout is a joy, especially if you’re a fan of the films, which the musical was inspired by. It has hits like “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December,” but also includes plenty of new songs. With Terrence McNally’s book, Stephen Flaherty’s score and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens — who all won Tony Awards for their work on Ragtime — Anastasia shows the trio can write everything from power ballads to playful duets and big, brassy ensemble numbers. (Darko Tresnjak’s direction and Peggy Hickey’s choreography also help.)

If you’ve seen, or heard, Ragtime you’ll see that influence throughout the show, most prominently in “Stay, I Pray You,” my favorite ensemble number of the evening, and one of the show’s most somber. That paired with the number that follows it, “We’ll Go From There,” really showcases Aaron Rhyne’s projection design.

Rhyne’s work makes it possible to feel like you’re really there — whether it be outside the Eiffel Tower, standing on a bridge in Paris, or looking over St. Petersburg — without huge set pieces having to come on and off the stage. I’ve never seen design like this in a show but it really works here, especially as our trio travels from Russia to Paris.

Speaking of Paris, Linda Cho’s costumes in Paris are perfect for the era, with the dropped waistlines to match. Cho — who was nominated for a Tony for her work — has also created some of the most gorgeous costumes, especially the dresses, which have been paired with tiaras that may make you want to be a princess. She’s left no detail out, from the bright and loud colors in Paris to the more somber clothes of those living in Russia, most of which are in muted colors.

And I have to mention the men in this musical. Oh boy. There’s Gleb (Evans) who is the most serious of the trio with an inner struggle almost as intense as Anya’s. Every solo he sings, you watch that internal struggle come alive as he debates what’s the right thing to do and what’s not, and he hits crystal clear notes while doing so.

Then there’s Staudenmayer’s Vlad, the show’s comedic relief, who has an extra smooth baritone. When he’s paired with Countess Lily (Tari Kelly, who is noteworthy in her own right) during Act II’s “The Countess and the Common Man,” his comedic skills soar even further than it seemed possible. The duo earned one of the evening’s loudest applauses, and rightly so. The number is a comedic tour-de-force about two old lovers who have recently found each other once again. By the end of the number, my face hurt from all the smiling.

Last and certainly not least is Brower’s Dmitry, who starts off as a guy just looking to trick an old lady and make a quick buck. Viewers soon learn he’s a man with a lot more layers than it originally seems and Brower brings all of them to the forefront. Wait for his solo during Act I, “My Petersburg,” to not only really hear how amazing his range and vocal tone are, but watch some of his layers finally get peeled back.

Anastasia is a show with a lot of things, sparkle, romance, adventure but ultimately it’s a musical about finding yourself, and what happens when you do. Luckily for audiences, this journey also has some pretty epic pipes to listen to along the way.

Wharton Center
Jan. 15-20