THE 1952 PLAY Anastasia, by Marcelle Maurette, has been twice adapted for the big screen: a 1956 historical drama starring Ingrid Bergman and a 1997 animated musical starring Meg Ryan. It’s the story of the young, amnesiac orphan Anya, who greatly resembles Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova, a member of the last Russian imperial family that was killed in 1918. Many believed that Anastasia alone survived. Anya teams with two men intent on passing her off as the real Anastasia to garner the Romanov fortune, and along the way, she finds love.

Being a history buff, I lit up when I found out there was a stage adaptation of one of my favorite movies being developed in Hartford, Conn. Soon, the show graced the Broadway stage at the Broadhurst Theatre, and I knew I needed to see it. Once the national tour began, I jumped at the opportunity to see Anastasia in my hometown. Amid the Texas heat, I was refreshed by a visit to Russia and France on March 9 at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Sammy Sarabia participated in the Thespian Criticworks program at the 2018 International Thespian Festival.

Sammy Sarabia participated in the Thespian Criticworks program at the 2018 International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

As I propped my Anastasia program to take a picture for my Snapchat story, I couldn’t stop staring at the curtain that was graced with beautiful projections of snow, as well as images of a Russian palace and the Eiffel Tower. I instantly knew this show would fulfill all the technical aesthetics that a younger me never knew she wanted when she saw Don Bluth’s animated Anastasia on VHS long ago. For all my technical friends out there, the set, lighting, and costumes are more than enough reason to see this show. It. Is. Gorgeous. Although Linda Cho received a Tony nomination for costume design, designers Donald Holder (lighting), Alexander Dodge (set), and Aaron Rhyne (projection) also deserve top honors in my book.

I know many will compare the stage musical to the animated movie and, perhaps due to the nostalgia trend sweeping theatre, will prefer the film. I understand, but I urge you to view them as separate entities. Aside from the most basic plot and character points, the two have little in common. There’s more character depth in the stage version, and I’m a fan of its change in antagonist, its longer scenes, and the fact that it’s not 100 percent centered on the title character.

With only eight songs from the movie, the stage musical takes the opportunity to dive into the motives and feelings of other characters. Other major changes include a more historically credible villain, the addition of a backstory for leading man Dmitry, and new songs that offer more of your favorite characters.

Lila Coogan and company in the national tour of Anastasia.
Lila Coogan and company in the national tour of Anastasia. Photo by Evan Zimmerman/MurphyMade.

The scene I was most excited to see was the family’s death, not just out of morbid fascination with the Romanovs but also because writers Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens opted for a more realistic telling of Anya’s story. The first moment that gave me chills was the transition from Little Anastasia to Young Anastasia. Even from the overhead view from my balcony seat, I couldn’t tell where Little Anastasia (Victoria Bingham) disappeared while dancing behind her father, Tsar Nicholas II.

The Romanov sisters were a vision of beauty as they spun round the dancefloor with their partners, including their very adorable younger brother, Alexei. As this beautiful winter party abruptly comes to a halt, the depressing brutality of the imperial family’s massacre is represented by a muted boom, which still scared me, particularly since I knew what would happen.

I first saw Lila Coogan, who plays the adult Anya in this touring version, in a YouTube mashup with Broadway’s original Anya, Christy Altomare, and the stars of two world tours — Jana Gomez (Spain) and Judith Caspari (Germany) — singing a multilingual quartet of “Journey to the Past.” I thought then that Coogan sounded similar to Altomare, but when I saw her live, I realized I could not have been more wrong. I enjoyed “In My Dreams” as it began, but about halfway through the song, I felt Coogan was over-singing. Though she captured Anya’s strength and endurance in a new and likable way, I wish the subtlety in her acting extended to her singing.

One part I very much enjoyed was the fight immediately before “My Petersburg.” Coogan’s confident and resilient attitude made the scene comedic but realistic. She had good chemistry with her scene partners, but it seemed as though she either didn’t recognize she was singing with others or her microphone was too loud. Her best moment was “Once upon a December,” because, for once, she didn’t over-sing. Overall, I wasn’t as impressed with Coogan’s Anya as with Altomare’s, but anyone who can competently perform this vocally demanding role still garners respect from me.

Co-star Stephen Brower, who played Dmitry, had a playful energy in “A Rumor in St. Petersburg” as a street hustler trying to finesse some cash. However, his voice and mannerisms grew colder after Anya entered the Ipatiev House. His standout moment was “Everything to Win.” But I really, really, really wanted it to be “My Petersburg,” in which he commanded attention but didn’t nail the high note at the end.

The differences in his portrayal from the character in the movie gave me mixed feelings. He is cold to Anya, knowingly leveraging her vulnerability, and he seems to take out his frustrations about his life on her, despite her attempts to cheer him. He does redeem himself toward the end with his sacrifice to give Anya the future she deserves. And Dmitry’s “In a Crowd of Thousands” heartened me, watching my childhood heroes sing about finding their lost and forbidden love.

Brower and Coogan had great chemistry overall, and he gave more than enough reason to keep me rooting for his mischievous plan. Also, the ending kiss at the train station, as Anya stands on his suitcase, warmed my heart.

Another standout for me was Jason Michael Evans, who played antagonist General Gleb Vaganov, a role written for the stage adaptation to replace the power-hungry sorcerer Rasputin of the film. This antagonist’s motive is also different from Rasputin’s, and his character is more sympathetic and self-reflective. However, I was bothered that Gleb was apparently attracted to Anya. Yes, that explains why he saves her in the end, but it’s strange since his father killed hers.

Evans is immediately commanding, as he announces the new Bolshevik regime, and he held this command throughout his performance. He also vocally stood out in all of his songs, my favorites being “The Neva Flows” and “Land of Yesterday (Reprise).” As much as I was glad that Flaherty and Ahrens cut “Anya” after the musical’s Hartford premiere, I’m not convinced that “Still” is needed, since its placement interrupts our heroes’ flow. And, much as I miss “In the Dark of the Night,” I’m glad there’s a small instrumental sample of that song in the chilling “Stay, I Pray You.”

Edward Staudenmayer’s Count Vlad Popov stole every one of his scenes with his sense of timing and his chemistry with Dmitry and Anya. He shined not only as a comic performer but also as a singer, especially in “We’ll Go from There,” in which he engages with the ensemble and provides a sneak peek of what’s to come in the next act with Countess Lily.

Speaking of the countess, although it isn’t a big role, Tari Kelly managed to grab attention every time she was onstage. “Land of Yesterday” was one of my favorite songs of the night. The choreography looked so physically demanding that I was sweating in my seat just watching it. However, as Lily walks off with Vlad at the end of the raunchy “The Countess and the Common Man,” she becomes essentially another stage prop.

I was not enamored with Joy Franz’s Dowager Empress. As she started the show, I had high hopes, but from “Close the Door,” her somber ballad in Act 2, through the show’s climactic scene, she lost much of her initial sparkle. She essentially lost the anger and darkness the Dowager Empress rightfully has after what she’s been through.

If you haven’t seen Anastasia, do so. However, don’t book your tickets to New York. The Broadway production closed March 31, but the tour continues across the United States for at least another year. It’s a beautiful story about family and self-acceptance, and I hope this show doesn’t become lost to theatre history. Although the story takes place from 1907 to 1927, it doesn’t mean we can’t find a bit of Anya and Dmitry in ourselves today.

To find when and where Anastasia will be near you, visit

This story appeared in the June 2019 print version of Dramatics as part of the Thespian Criticworks program. Learn more about Thespian Criticworks online. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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