Anastasia at the Hobby Doesn't Quite Find its Footing

Edward Staudenmayer (center), Stephen Brower (left front), Lila Coogan (right front) and the company of the national tour of Anastasia. They belted their hearts out.
Edward Staudenmayer (center), Stephen Brower (left front), Lila Coogan (right front) and the company of the national tour of Anastasia. They belted their hearts out. Photo by Evan Zimmerman
Why do all the cast members in the touring production of Anastasia (2017), playing through March 10 at the Hobby via Micher Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby, sing like they're auditioning for a tour of Les Miz? They belt, wail, and emote, haloed in Donald Holder's back light as if sanctified, or expecting a callback.

Adapted from the Don Bluth animated musical (1997), which itself was based on the Marcelle Maurette play (1954) and the play's most famous adaptation, the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, no wonder this musical doesn't know where to find its footing. It's got a little bit of everything, but a whole lot of knockoff Broadway, from My Fair Lady to The Phantom of the Opera. But not the good parts, which would be score, casting, and lively libretto.

The story is classic. Con men Vlad and Dmitri find their meal ticket out of post-Revolutionary Russia when they find a young girl with amnesia. They groom her to be a grand lady and drill her with czarist facts so they can pass her off on dowager grandma in Paris. The girl will be heir to the throne, and the guys will pocket a cut. Commoner Dmitri, of course, falls in love, but realizes that if their plot is successful, he'll never see his princess again.

Everyone involved in the production has done something better. Composer/lyricist team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens spun out Ragtime (high-stepping it at Theatre Under the Stars in April), Once on This Island, and My Favorite Year. Director Darko Tresnjak won awards for the screwball comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder; scenic designer Alexander Dodge has been nominated for Present Laughter and the aforementioned Gentleman's Guide; costumer Linda Cho won a Tony for Gentlemen's Guide; multiple Tony-nominated lighting designer Holder has two Tonies for The Lion King and South Pacific; while book author Terrence McNally has four awards on his shelf for Love! Valour! Compassion!; Master Class; Kiss of the Spider Woman; and Ragtime. All these ultra-talented people swim upstream on this one.

The one good decision this team made in turning the animation into 3D was to drop the character of Rasputin, the psychotic charlatan who mesmerizes the czarina and wheedles his way into the Romanov court to disastrous effect. In the cartoon, he comes back to life to haunt the principals, a comic zombie with sidekick albino bat, whose hoary shtick is very stale Catskills. In the musical, Rasputin's replaced by Gleb, an avenging zealot of the Bolsheviks. Think of him like Javert from Les Miserables, always prowling after Anastasia. With his healthy baritone, Jason Michael Evans is a wily adversary. Unfortunately, both he and the male ingenue lead Dmitri, sung by tenor Stephen Brower, look so similar, that in the shadowy lighting, you might think it was the same person. This discrepancy causes momentary confusion throughout, which this show doesn't need.

In a bald bite out of Les Miz, there's a low comedy couple, con man Vlad, Edward Staudenmayer, and the dowager empress's lady-in-waiting, Lily, annoyingly overplayed by Tari Kelly, who once had a fling in St. Petersburg. Their duet, a la Gigi's “Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well,” is a poor parody of a Carol Burnett/Harvey Korman routine, just much lower. Staudenmayer, though, possesses a true Broadway belt and as a song-and-dance man is quite a show in himself, dancing an ersatz Charleston with hair flapping. All three male leads have wonderful voices for Broadway, and Flaherty's soaring anthems and love ballads land right in their sweet spots. However, all the songs sound the same, be they music hall numbers, waltz pastiches, or American Idol mix tapes.

Anastasia is heavily padded with twice as many songs as the cartoon, which drags down the pace and adds nothing to the musical characterization of the show itself. The early songs, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia don't sound particularly Russian, and the '20s Parisian ensembles aren't very French. It all sounds like lukewarm mediocre Broadway. Even the quasi-famous set pieces, “In My Dreams” and “Journey to the Past,” while certifiable power ballads, never quite spark. This may be because our Anastasia, Lila Coogin (who, at 13, played Jane Banks in Mary Poppins on Broadway) never seems comfortable in the role. Her voice turns shrill at the top or becomes garbled at the bottom, so we're left with loud and shrill, or loud and garbled. It doesn't sound good. Her best range dramatically is when she's young Anya, suffering from amnesia; she's soft, innocent, and confused. When she turns aristocratic, she's terribly hard and unsympathetic. I think she's just miscast. It happens.

But for all the Anastasiacs in the audience – and there were quite a few young dewy-eyed princesses and many older ones, too, who are drawn to the movie – this version with Aaron Rhyne's unceasing projections, which can be mesmerizing on their own, if somewhat overdone, like Shen Yun on steroids, will please. But for those who have seen the many progenitors of the story or the classic Broadway shows it cribs from, this is hardly a revolution, it's a retreat.

Anastasia continues through March 10 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit or $35-$265 plus fees.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover