by Beki Pineda

ANASTASIA – Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Book by Terrence McNally; Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Broadway (Buell Theatre, 14th and Curtis, Denver) through August 18. Tickets available at 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org. 

Let’s get it straight from the beginning: The story of ANASTASIA is as much of a myth, a legend, as LITTLE MERMAID or CINDERELLA. While based on a real person,  17-year-old Anastasia Nikolaevna of the House of Romanov sadly died with the rest of her family during an assassination attack at the hands of revolutionaries. The legend of her escape from this murder was fueled by the fact that her body was disposed of in a different place from the rest of her family and by the desire of loyalists to believe that the whole family was not destroyed. But her remains were found and confirmed by DNA as proof that she died with the rest of her family. But the legend lives on in film and now in a musical based on the same story.

ANASTASIA is one of the most beautiful shows you’ll ever see. Start with the costumes designed by Tony winner Linda Cho.  As magnificent as the Romanovs look in the commercials advertising the show, under the lights with the diamonds sparkling, the dancers glitter like enchanted snow angels. The story moves from 1918 Russia to 1920’s Paris, realizing the best of fashion in the gowns and uniforms of the royalty and the night club costumes of the Russian emigrates in Paris. Anastasia’s clothing transforms from relentlessly drab as she surfaces from the streets of St. Petersburg to spectacular as she is presented to Parisian society.

The collaboration among the scenic designer, Tony winner Alexander Dodge; the lighting designer Donald Holder; and, most significantly, Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne creates stage pictures unlike anything seen to date. Rhyne is able to achieve special effects with projections that must be seen to be believed. An explosion that seems to throw debris out into the audience, the point of view during a train ride that changes six times to illustrate the different places the actors are standing on the train, a bridge in St. Petersburg that changes from day to glorious night with street lights illuminating the river, a elevator ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower . . . and so many more that breathtakingly support the story being told. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on the stage is the scene during which the original Ball is recreated after the assassination during which Anya dances among the ghosts of her family. The basic set design featured three large arches that, with the addition of different doors and gates and a new image projected behind then, became palaces, Depression-torn streets and government buildings as needed. Stage technology jumped forward at least a decade with the work done by these three brilliant technicians.

The book and music is a delightful pastiche of past shows while remaining authentic and original to the legend. The number “Learn to Do It” brought back memories of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from MY FAIR LADY in tone. As they board the train taking them out of Russia, the three travelers turn to view their home land for what will probably be the last time and express their emotions in a song reminiscent of the last scene from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.  he second act finds new excitement with the arrival of Countess Lily, the lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother. Her down to earth approach to her royalty and its near uselessness in Paris enhances a nightclub scene in “Land of Yesterday” and reminds one of the arrival of Muzzy in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. But none of this diminishes the charm of this story and these performances.

Lila Coogan does a lovely job of transforming Anya slowly from a street sweeper to a duchess with total credibility. The awakening of memories, the growing awareness of her attraction to Dmitry, the tension between her and the villainous Gleb, the gentleness between her and her grandmother were all performed with grace. Stephen Brower as one of the two con men determined to pass Anya off as the Duchess in order to collect a reward makes an appealing young lover who awakens Anya to the possibility of a quiet future. Comic relief was provided with great style by Tara Kelly as the rambunctious Countess Lily and Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad, the other con man who has shared a history with Lily in the past. They jointly take great pleasure in renewing their flirty relationship when they meet again in Paris. Once they come together on the stage, the audience can’t wait for each new appearance as the energy rivets up several notches when they are on stage. Joy Franz gives a poignant performance as the faithful Dowager Empress who keeps the candle on for Anastasia despite the onslaught of imposters. Appearing  younger in the early scenes with the young Anastasia, her later appearance denotes the toll the loss of her entire family has taken on her. Gleb, the government official charged with hunting down the possible Anastasia and finishing the assassination, is Jason Michael Evans. Ironically, Gleb was the real name of the son of the real loyal doctor who died in service to the royal family – certainly not one who would have sought to “finish the job.”

Those who have enjoyed the musically animated movie also scored by Flaherty and Ahrens from 1997 will rejoice in the six songs which repeat in the musical version and enjoy the new songs. When Anya and her friends arrive in Paris, they seek to  introduce her to her grandmother at the Ballet, allowing for a magnificent interlude of real ballet as sections of “Swan Lake” is danced for their enjoyment. A breathtaking performance by Lyrica Woodruff, Mark MacKillop and Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr. enhance this portion of the evening.

Enjoy this performance of ANASTASIA for the joy it can bring you today and watch the future of technical theatre come alive in front of you.

A WOW factor of 9.5!!