Review: ‘Anastasia’ at The Hippodrome Theatre

There’s nothing wrong with Anastasia: The New Broadway Musical that a little modern relevance wouldn’t cure. It certainly looks sensational inside the grand proscenium framing of Baltimore’s historic Hippodrome Theatre.

Lila Coogan in Anastasia at The Hippodrome Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The odyssey of a lost Russian princess adrift in a bleak, post-revolutionary world has all the makings of a modern fairytale. But here her search for her rightful place is given about twenty pounds of musical bombast to every ounce of pertinence.

That ratio was apparently enough to earn the show a long stay on Broadway last season, and a national tour. Anastasia boasts a full new score by the team that gave us Ragtime (Stephen Flaherty music, Lynn Ahearns lyrics) but a book by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally (Master Class).

McNally adapted the play from a pair of 20th Century Fox screenplays: one from the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film and the other from its 1997 semi-musical adaptation by animator Don Bluth. McNally chops up his stage action into a first act that unfolds in a dystopian Leningrad and an Act II set in vibrant Paris, circa 1927.

Getting from one setting to the other is more than half the fun here, thanks to the wizardry of Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge and Projection Designer Aaron Rhyne, who won two top awards in New York for this achievement. Gorgeous inside and out views of Leningrad palaces pelted by snowflakes and then cannonballs culminate with a stop inside a massive train station compete with vaulted skylights and track platforms and one ancient locomotive engine with smoke rising from its stack.

Lila Coogan and Ensemble in Anastasia. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

The would-be princess and her pair of shady promoters climb aboard for a truly breathtaking recreation of a train ride through the Russian countryside, escaping assassins and eventually arriving at France’s fabled City of Lights.

This Anastasia retelling jettisons the cartoon feature’s Rasputin villainy entirely. In his place is a dogged Bolshevik commissar by the name of Gleb, who worries if he can summon his father’s necessary revolutionary zeal to pull the trigger on the runaway princess when the opportunity appears.

Add to the spectacle the pleasant score and the occasional vignettes of romance, a credible night at the Parisian ballet — Swan Lake, here admirably danced by Washington Ballet alum Claire Rathbun — and one finds it easy enough to overlook the absence of strong storytelling hooks.

Original Director Darko Tresnjak has overseen the transition to national tour footing in a polished and cohesive presentation. The cast he has assembled is uniformly strong, beginning with all three Anastasias in the varying timelines. Victoria Bingham is a scene-stealer as the 7-year-old princess, soon represented as a 17-year-old by Taylor Quick, and then turned over for the heavy-lifting star-power of prodigiously gifted Lila Coogan.

Joy Franz is superb as the regally skeptical Dowager Empress, with excellent comic support by Tari Kelly as Countess Lily. Kelly’s novelty love duet with Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad sends the audience into perhaps the evening’s most rapturous fit of approval.

Stephen Brower as Anya’s love interest Dimitri is stolid and likable, and Jason Michael Evans as Gleb brings a strong voice and commitment to the play’s pat rendition of the inevitable squishy heavy.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Anastasia plays through December 9, 2018, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center — 12 North Eutaw Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online. 

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

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