Review: Foundation strong for ‘Anastasia,’ but there are flaws

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by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

The bones are strong for the stage musical “Anastasia,” now playing at The Bushnell in Hartford until Sunday, Jan. 19.

But, the flesh certainly could use some toning up in this tale about the months following the assassination of Russian Czar Nicholas II.

The show, which was first presented to the public at the Hartford Stage, is about a pair of scoundrels (Jake Levy and Edward Staudenmayer) with hearts of gold. They find a waif (Lila Coogan) in the streets of post-Communist revolution St. Petersburg because they are anxious to get out of Russia, while desiring to make a pretty penny to boot.

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The duo, Dmitry (Levy) and Vlad (Staudenmeyer), want to pass Anya (Coogan) off as the long-rumored surviving member of the Romanov dynasty, Anastasia. If there ruse works, a reward might be given to them by the Dowager Empress who terriby misses her lost granddaughter.

The story, written by Terrence McNally, turns on the question, is the woman the duo shape into being a faux-Anastasia actually the real Anastasia.

There are so many echoes of classic musicals in the show.

The scenes where Vlad and Dmitry train Anya to be more royal reminded me of “My Fair Lady.”

I also saw echoes of “The Sound of Music.” But, instead of the characters escaping the clutches of Hitler’s Nazis, they are escaping the clutches of Lenin’s revolutionaries.

There also was a little bit of a “Pretty Woman” and “Cinderella” fairy tale vibe with its tale of a commoner elevated to royalty.

And, of course, the film taps into the same mythology that gave us the 1956 film with Ingrid Bergman and the 1997 animated film (the memory of which seemed to be one of the biggest draw for the twenty-somethings sitting around me on Jan. 14.)

However, the clearest influences, in my mind, are the buddy musical comedies made by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. In this series of films, which included “The Road to Rio,” Hope and Crosby are always scoundrels with hearts of gold. When they learn the error of their ways, they typically ended the film with a romance, which usually involved Lamour.

That is awfully similar to story arc in “Anastasia.”

So, “Anastasia” definitely had a strong foundation for a good musical comedy.

The score itself, with music b Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, drew from the classic stage musical canon, with its emphasis on orchestration instead of musical hooks and pop music gadgetry. However, that was a bit of a drawback because except for the soaring “Journey to the Past,” sung wonderfully by Coogan, you’d be hard pressed to hum the soundtrack as you left the theater. It was lush but often just musical wallpaper,

The posh costumes by Linda Cho also echoed the glorious past of stage musicals, especially in the scenes involving the Russian royalty.

“Anastasia” is good. But it’s not a “great” show.

There was just something missing for me.

The three leads were fine performers. Coogan needed to grab the audience’s attention as the central character and she did that superbly. Levy did a great job as the conniving dreamboat who only needed to find the right woman to fly straight. And Staudenmayer was great fun.

The entire cast was talented.

However, “Anastasia” was like checking out the highest grossing movie of the Thanksgiving weekend and then wondering what the fuss was all about. There clearly could be worst ways to spend your time than joining the masses in the theater. But there also could have been better ways as well.

I give “Anastasia” at The Bushnell in Hartford 3 ½ out of 5 stars.

“Anastasia” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17 and Saturday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m. and matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.

For information, go to Bushnell.org.