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Lila Coogan plays Anya and Jake Levy plays a boyishly shy Dimitry.

Evan Zimmerman

  • Title: Anastasia
  • Written by: Terrence McNally
  • Music by: Stephen Flaherty
  • Lyrics by: Lynn Ahrens
  • Genre: Musical
  • Director: Darko Tresnjak
  • Actors: Taylor Quick, Jake Levy, Brad Greer, Joy Franz, Tari Kelly, Edward Staudenmayer
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: Ed Mirvish Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020

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Like nasty old Rasputin, who reputedly had to be poisoned, shot and drowned before he’d give up the ghost, the legend of Anastasia just won’t die.

Although it’s never been proved that the youngest daughter of Russian Czar Nicholas II escaped the firing squad that executed her family, the notion makes for an enticing fairy tale. It got the full-on Cinderella treatment in 1997, with the animated musical film Anastasia, and now here it is on the stage of Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre in its most recent, Broadway musical guise.

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This Anastasia, which premiered on Broadway in 2017 (the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, as it happens), is a reworking of the movie to “age up” the story, as it were. No longer just kids’ entertainment – so long, green-skinned Rasputin and talking albino bat – it’s now for adults, too, thanks to the handiwork of librettist Terrence McNally and songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the trio who gave us Ragtime.

All the same, it’s still a cartoon. A spectacular one, too. When the curtain came down on opening night, the buzz in the audience wasn’t about the music or the emotions, but about the fabulous scenery. More on that later.

Our Cinderella is Anya, an amnesiac orphan working as a street sweeper in 1920s Leningrad, who gets swept up by two con men. Young, proletarian Dmitry and his older accomplice, the ex-courtier Vlad Popov, have heard the rumour that Anastasia survived the rubbing-out of the Romanovs. Now, they’re looking for a suitable imposter to deceive her grandmother, the exiled Dowager Empress, and collect a hefty reward.

After grooming Anya for the role – in a scene cheerfully lifted from My Fair Lady – they embark with her on a trip to Paris, where the old lady holds court amid the Russian émigré community. Following them is Gleb, a young Bolshevik official charged with killing Anya if she really turns out to be Anastasia.

Gleb is also secretly in love with Anya. But she and Dmitry, thrown together, have begun to develop feelings for each other.

One of the scene-stealers of the show is Edward Staudenmayer’s hammy Vlad, right.

Evan Zimmerman

There are some witty touches in McNally’s book and some lively numbers from Flaherty and Aherns, including six that they originally wrote for the film (among them the Oscar-nominated Journey to the Past). But everything is laid down in broad strokes and the emotional scenes are so shallow that you find yourself unmoved even when the spectres of the butchered royal family haunt Anya/Anastasia’s dreams.

Director Darko Tresnjak, who won a Tony Award for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, obviously has a greater flair for comedy. The show is so lighthearted about revolution, dispossession and murder, it stops just short of parody. Tresnjak’s breezy approach does keep things moving, though, with a staging propelled by Peggy Hickey’s peppy choreography and continuous wow-inducing scene changes.

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Alexander Dodge’s elegant sets and Aaron Rhyne’s gorgeous projections, abetted by Donald Holder’s magical lighting, are the real stars. Their design work takes us on a time-tripping travelogue from glittering imperial St. Petersburg to grim Soviet Leningrad and then, in Act 2, jazzy 1920s Paris. In one scene, characters leap from a moving railway car. In another, they take a high-speed elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower.

On opening night, understudy Taylor Quick went on for the company’s usual Anya, Lila Coogan (suffering from laryngitis), and did a bang-up job. Her spirited Anya was complemented by Jake Levy’s boyishly shy Dimitry and Brad Greer’s boyishly serious Gleb.

The scene stealers, however, are Edward Staudenmayer’s hammy Vlad and a delightfully over-the-top Tari Kelly as his old flame, Countess Lily. When they break into their slapstick Act 2 duet, The Countess and the Common Man, it feels as if we’re no longer in Paris or St. Petersburg, but in a vintage episode of The Carol Burnett Show. How’s that for a journey to the past?

Anastasia continues to Jan. 12. (mirvish.com)

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