The most mysterious thing about the feisty, strawberry-blond protagonist of the musical “Anastasia,” whose national tour has landed at the Hollywood Pantages, is not her affliction by what doctors today might diagnose as retrograde amnesia or dissociative fugue. (Her story takes place in 1927, in the infancy of neuroscience, when doctors just called everyone crazy.)
Anya (Lila Coogan) woke up in a hospital a few years after the Russian Revolution with no idea how she got there. She couldn’t remember her name. The nurses chose Anya. Now she earns a meager living as a street sweeper in bleak Leningrad, nourished only by a sense that her destiny waits in Paris.
It’s unusual that a street sweeper should speak fluent French, the preferred tongue of the overthrown Russian upper class. Odd too that deposed aristocrats drop to their knees as she passes. The murdered royal Romanovs visit her in her dreams, telling her that she’s related to them.
But stranger than all of these phenomena is that Anya never wonders if she might be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II and rumored to have escaped the 1918 assassination of her family.
The whole world in 1927, the musical makes clear, is obsessed with Anastasia: Did she survive? If so, where is she? The Soviets maintain a file cabinet the size of a stadium just to keep track of Anastasia sightings. Her grieving grandmother, the Dowager Empress of Russia (Joy Franz), who relocated to Paris before the Bolshevik uprising, has offered a reward for the return of the lost princess, and impostors are thick on the ground.
But to persuade Anya to consider her own connection to the Anastasia mystery requires the intervention of two amiable con men, an escape by train, a night at the ballet, confrontations with the dowager empress and even a second assassination attempt.
And even after all that, she’s like, “I guess?”
Book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who created the wonderful “Ragtime” together, know about musicals. So they must have had a good reason to devote so much of “Anastasia” to making the case for a revelation that the audience already gathered from the title.
We don’t need proof that Anya is Anastasia. We’re ready for her to reclaim her birthright. We’ll accept subplots along the way — within reason. Sure, let’s meet two sidekicks, louche middle-aged Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and handsome young Dmitry (Jake Levy). These lovable shysters are looking for a girl they can pass off as the princess for the reward money. They choose Anya — oblivious to the irony — and put her through a crash course in her own life story, expressing mild surprise whenever she comes out with a detail they haven’t taught her.
Faherty and Ahrens’ score is based on the one they wrote for the 1997 animated movie “Anastasia” (one of the inspirations for this stage adaptation), with nearly double the songs. Many additions are performed by Dmitry and Vlad. Dmitry spars with Anya with the mutual hostility that presages true love in musicals. Pompous, floppy-haired Vlad gets the biggest laughs, especially during his extraneous but still irresistible duet with an old flame, the helplessly lusty Countless Lily (Tari Kelly).
Other new numbers go to Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), the communist apparatchik who has replaced the villains from the movie. Gleb’s father was one of the original assassins of the Romanovs, so if Anya turns out to be Anastasia, he will feel obliged to finish the job — which will be rough on him emotionally because he has a crush on her.
Their songs are serviceable, if not memorable, but even the best song in the world can be exasperating if it doesn’t seem to be taking the story anywhere, and it’s hard not to suspect some of these of stalling.
Here’s where the director, Darko Tresnjak, comes in. He’s known for creative staging — he won a Tony Award in 2014 for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — and his approach to “Anastasia” is to make sure something is moving at every moment — if not the plot (and mostly it’s not), then Alexander Dodge’s set and Aaron Rhyne’s dazzlingly cinematic projections. The scene changes are so fluid they could be hallucinations. Every backdrop is eye candy, saturated with luscious color. In one jaw-dropping sequence, a train car hurtles down a tree-lined track; in another, we swoop up and down the Eiffel Tower as if it’s a roller coaster while fireworks explode in a denim-blue sky. Both scenes, like Universal Studios rides, do their best to convince us that we’ve taken a thrilling journey when we haven’t moved an inch.
But in fact, the moments that work best don’t try to go anywhere. They dwell, poignantly, in a romanticized past.
The 1917 Winter Ball in St. Petersburg — the last such ball — is in full swing. Romanov family members, dressed in opulent whites (by costume designer Linda Cho), happily dance and pose for photographs when suddenly the fat, fluffy snowflakes outside the windows dissolve in the blood-red glow of revolution and the world falls to pieces around them. This scene keeps reassembling itself, in ever-ghostlier versions, in Anya’s memory, accompanied by the haunting music-box melody “Once Upon a December.”
Even though her burned remains were located after the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s hard to give up the fantasy that she survived and that some workaday schlub — like, say, me — is the heiress to the Romanov fortune. On the other hand, outside the Winter Palace, Russia wasn’t such a paradise. I won’t dwell on the odd timing of a pro-czarist musical at this point in American history. But the most effective musicals balance tradition against change and ultimately embrace the new. “Anastasia” might be more satisfying if it spent less energy establishing its lovable heroine’s royal blood and more fleshing out an alternative future for her — and the rest of us — just in case the whole Romanov thing doesn’t work out.
In Costa Mesa, Nov. 5-17: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $26 and up. (714) 556-2787 or SCFTA.org.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
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