REVIEW: ‘Anastasia’ musical is a beautifully stylized look at a not-so-distant past

Photo: Matthew Murphy / Courtesy Walton Arts Center

As with any story surrounding the demise of the Romanov family (and the rise of revolutionary Russia), there are layers of truth and fiction to wade through.

What level of political influence did the spiritual advisor Rasputin have on the family, and did he really survive several attempts at his life? (Answer: Maybe? But probably not.) Did any of the Romanovs, exiled from power and hidden from public view, survive their Bolshevik-ordered assassination? Perhaps one of the daughters? There were accounts that the bodies of the dead were left on a truck before being hauled away for burial. Maybe one was merely wounded, and a sympathetic guard helped her escape? (Answer: It’s very, very unlikely.)

In the musical “Anastasia,” we are confronted with the latter premise – that one of the czar’s daughters did somehow survive.

What: “Anastasia”
When: Through March 15
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost:  Starting at $40 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or

“Anastasia” the musical, currently at the Walton Arts Center for a series of shows that run through March 15, finds its plotline in two films. Aesthetically, it shares much with the 1997 animated film. It also contains traces of the 1956 film with Ingrid Bergman, which finds inspiration one of the many real-life Anastasia impersonators, perhaps Anna Anderson, who long claimed to be Anastasia (but a DNA test proved otherwise).

Rasputin did not survive the effort to transform the animated movie to the stage production. He’s instead replaced by a dedicated Bolshevik watchdog, Gleb (played by Jason Michael Evans). He sees and knows everything, too – including that an amnesiac girl from the streets named Anya has been cavorting with a pair of ne’er-do-wells. These men, the young man Dmitry (Jake Levy) and the displaced semi-aristocrat Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer), live in an abandoned theater. They’ve been holding rehearsals to find themselves an Anastasia, which they plan to tutor into someone who can convince the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz) that her granddaughter lives. There’s a reward to be given to those who find the missing child, and that’s appealing to Dmitry and Vlad, who eke out a lifestyle of breadlines and dreaming of a future they can barely see.

Anya (Lila Coogan) immediately looks the part, and her amnesia-induced empty memory bank might help Dmitry and Vlad reprogram her, too. Anya is a somewhat reluctant participant, but eventually takes up studies of the Romanov family and the French language. The latter subject will help when they get to Paris, where the Dowager Empress lives in exile as the sole keeper of the Romanov name and estate.

It’s not easy to get to Paris, and not just because Anya must learn centuries of names and dates. Gleb lets Anya go once with a warning, but promises to treat her the way his father, a Bolshevik guard, treated his duty to country when he served as one of the executioners of the Romanov family. Political uncertainty, and a lack of ticket money, make for a near-miss escape.

Photo: Matthew Murphy / Courtesy Walton Arts Center

Despite (and sometimes because of) this history lesson, “Anastasia” follows a well-worn and conventional plot. Taken as a straight reading of the Romanov story, there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before or holds with fact. But if you consider the musical as an animated film, it’s quite the onstage wonder.

The costuming is nothing short of amazing. There’s only so much you can do with the outfit of a street urchin, of course. But the glimpses into Czarist Russia, with white regalia and bejeweled garments, were a sight to behold. Anya’s transformation from street dweller to dignified Anastasia in her ball gown is remarkable, and done in a matter of moments. This is, at its heart, a princess story, and our princess looks the part.

Additionally, the set pieces and innovative uses of the full-stage video board bolster the production value as much as any song. Alexander Dodge earned an Outer Critics nomination for scenic design for the 2017 Broadway production and it’s clear why. The set pieces transitioned well to the Walton Arts Center stage, and their adaptability and the seamless directorial style made it all the more like an animated dream.

Photo: Matthew Murphy / Courtesy Walton Arts Center

From the snowy streets of St. Petersburg/Leningrad to the jubilant celebrations on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, we are carried along for the journey via the video boards. Several moments illustrate this best. At the musical’s outset, the Romanov clan dances in palatial hall. Behind them come the flashes of war with the overt use of the color red. Later, in a similar dancing scene after the deaths of the family, Anya whirls around the dancefloor. As she does, spectral images float all around her. It’s not as hokey as that might seem.

Ghosts included, it is a family-appropriate show, and that was evident at the Tuesday night opener I attended. There were several young girls in princess dresses. I also saw two women well into their 20s in princess dresses. Why not?

“Anastasia” is escapism on many levels, real and imagined. The reality of the actual fate of Anastasia is supplanted by the idea that we can dream up a life for ourselves. That has consequences for our past and present selves, and for those impacted on either side of the changes.

We can always change. But it’s what we believe that will be what others believe, too.