‘Anastasia’ is lively, flawed historical adventure

Illustration of characters from Anastasia stage play
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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History often misremembers the 1997 animated musical “Anastasia” as a Walt Disney Pictures production. To many diehard Disney fans’ chagrin, people often lump the titular Anastasia with Ariel, Belle and the other princesses who hold Disney court. With whimsical tunes, cartoonishly animal sidekicks and a dashingly rapscallion love interest, it is easy to mistake “Anastasia” as a Disney Renaissance piece. But, in fact, good animated films have sometimes come from studios other than the Mouse. When “Anastasia” came out (courtesy of Fox Animation Studios), it was a smash hit, garnering an ice show, a spin-off prequel and, most recently, a stage musical adaptation.

The stage adaptation opened on Broadway in 2017 to mixed reviews, and although it was nominated for two Tony awards — for costumes and best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical — it closed in 2019. While its run on Broadway was short-lived, the musical has been kept alive with European productions and a U.S. tour, which opened on Sept. 3 at the SHN Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco.

For the most part, the musical adheres to the main plot of the animated film. “Anastasia” follows the titular character, who after the Russian Revolution becomes the sole heir to the Romanov fortune. Years later, Anastasia, now going by Anya, does not remember her past. But as fate would have it, she crosses paths with conman Vlad and his dashing rapscallion partner-in-crime Dmitry, who both hatch a scheme to masquerade Anya as the lost princess Anastasia to her wealthy aunt, the former Empress of Russia, in Paris. Unlike the 1990s movie, however, “Anastasia” the musical removes the cartoonishly evil magician Rasputin and his bat sidekick, Bartok, instead substituting Bolshevik general Gleb as the main antagonist.

In theory, the musical has every element of a successful show — gorgeous period costumes, grand dancing sequences, pre-existing property with a built-in audience. In execution, however, the show falls flat of being a memorable musical. “Anastasia” seems to lie in multiple limbos — from the beginning, there is an odd balance between the show’s physical set pieces and digital screens. The show’s emphasis on its digital effects works well in some cases, such as when Anya is remembering a haunting ballroom scene from her childhood. As the performers dance in pale costumes around her, spectral dancers are also projected onto the walls as a callback to the film.

In most cases, the constant presence of the digital screens among the physical set serves only to jar the audience from the narrative. The projections of St. Petersburg in the background look more like a Mac computer wallpaper than a believable stage setting, adding an inadvertent reference to the animated film that the musical is trying so desperately to separate itself from.

In trying to distance itself from the movie with its fresh take on the storyline, “Anastasia” also lies in a limbo of its source material and deviations. Because of the change of villains, the stage adaption becomes rooted in the historical drama rather than its predecessor’s magical realism. The musical wants to be taken seriously, yet it still tries to cling onto the physical comedy of the animated movie. As a result, it never holds onto one tone for long enough. The soundtrack also relies heavily on the movie’s biggest hits, such as “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December,” for its best musical numbers. In between these, there is a string of unmemorable songs that the audience will forget as soon as they leave the theater.

Of course, every musical has its redeeming qualities: “Anastasia” is redeemed by its supporting characters Vlad and Countess Lily. Both characters carry the physical comedy of the show and their raunchy duet together, “The Countess and the Common Man,” garnered the biggest laughs of the night. Although their joviality is out of place with the rest of the musical’s period drama, when the show leans into its more comedic aspects, it does it well.

In wanting to be a wholly original musical, “Anastasia” has been stuck failing to please both those who want a faithful adaptation and those who want a fresh take. Just similar enough to itch the nostalgia scratch but not satisfy it, and just different enough to confuse the audience, the musical experiences a perennial identity crisis. Come for the costumes, the wistful numbers and the spectacle, but don’t expect anything more.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].