Chicago Reviews

Strong performances, great tech make Anastasia a winner

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Evan Zimmermann.

Discussing the touring production of Anastasia at intermission, I made mention of how utterly blown away I was by Alexander Dodge’s set and especially Aaron Rhyne’s projections, some of the best I’ve ever seen.

“Yes,” my husband responded. “They could put trained monkeys on that set and it would still be fun to watch.”

He might well have been right, but how much more entertaining it is with the fine troupe of actors that director Darko Tresnjak has assembled for this show, 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 she-who-might-be-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 accurate, but 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 Terrence 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.)

About the set: 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. There is also a lovely scene at a Romanov ball that is enhanced by Rhyne’s work. This is how projections ought to be used, and the set has just enough practical scenery to help them blend perfectly.

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. My husband and I enjoyed it a lot, even without the trained monkeys.

Anastasiais a Broadway in Chicago production now playing at the James M Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St  through Apr 7. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and

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