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'Anastasia' touring production technically savvy but dull

The animated version of Anastasia, released by the short-lived Fox Animation Studios in 1997, barely registered on the conscience, although Miss Ionarts assured me that we watched it together at some point. In the current rush to make what seems like every decently successful movie into a musical, someone somewhere thought that Anastasia could be expanded for the stage, a version that premiered on Broadway last year. The show proved popular enough to warrant a national tour, showing most of this month in the Kennedy Center Opera House, where we saw it on Thursday night. Not surprisingly for a children's movie made into a musical, most of the appeal was aimed at my young companion.

The story (book by Terrence McNally) concerns a conspiracy theory, the idea that a member of Tsar Nicholas II's family survived the Russian Revolution. A pair of con men coach a young woman picked off the streets of St. Petersburg, Anya, to pass as the lost girl, the Grand Duchess Anastasia. They take her to Paris, where she tries to convince the Dowager Tsarina that she is her long-lost grandchild. The villain of the movie, the sorcerer Rasputin, is excised in this version, replaced by a leader of the Soviet secret police, played with oily menace by Jason Michael Evans.

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Nelson Pressley, If you’ve seen one princess fairy tale, you know what to expect with ‘Anastasia’ (Washington Post, November 1, 2018)
The music by Stephen Flaherty is of limited interest, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally. The strongest numbers from the movie are retained, only about a half-dozen songs, are retained, including the piece that ends Act I, "Journey to the Past," which bears a disappointing similarity to the theme from the television show Hill Street Blues. Lila Coogan is a wide-eyed naif in the title role, with the Disney-style straight-tone high notes to carry the show's climaxes.

Most of the music comprising the show in its current form is new, and instantly forgettable. One notable exception is the hilarious "The Countess and the Common Man," partly due to the outrageous stage antics of Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad, the disgraced nobleman who masterminds Anya's transformation. In Paris, the location of Act II, he tries to reconnect with the Dowager's lady-in-waiting, played here by Tari Kelly with physical humor reminiscent of the divine Carol Burnett.

The real star of Darko Tresnjak's direction is the video-heavy production, which expands a relatively small stage space into grand vistas with technological flair. The lights of Paris come into view at the end of Act I, ghosts waltz through memories of the Russian court, and most strikingly countryside passes by from different angles on the train voyage from Russia to France. A scene at the Paris Opéra Ballet, weaving in music and the celebrated choreography of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in the second act, was another visual and musical highlight.

Anastasia runs through November 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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