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Anastasia, The Musical, Takes a More Grown-Up Approach to the Movie

Lila CooganEXPAND
Lila Coogan
Evan Zimmerman

The rumors of St. Petersburg have finally arrived in Dallas.

The beloved tale of the Princess Anastasia is touring for the first time and has set up shop at the Music Hall at Fair Park. But swap out Rasputin and the talking bat with communism.

“We think of it as Anastasia now for grown-ups," says Terrence McNally, the Tony Award-winning playwright who wrote the script. "The core audience for the movie are now more grown up, and I think they want a more adult approach.

“I had not seen the movie when I agreed to do it, but I did watch it before I wrote it. But as a child I’ve always been fascinated with the legend of Anastasia.”

Until this day he has only ever seen the 1997 film once.

“This is pretty much an original," he says. "This is my reaction to the movie and the actual history, combining both.”

The musical keeps all the songs we fell in love with at the turn of the century, like "Journey to the Past," "Once Upon a December," "A Rumor in St. Petersburg" and more, and all are wonderfully woven into the story.

The main contrasts between the movie and the musical are the replacement of magic with politics, which results in a more believable story for adults to enjoy.

“It’s definitely a historical fiction,” says Lila Coogan, who is making her national tour debut as the lead, Anya. “It’s set more in a reality and is more relatable in terms.”

It’s been almost a year since Coogan found out she would play Anya in this retelling of Anastasia. She was working a shift at her retail job when she got the call. It's her first big break.

“It’s been a dream,” she says. “She was my favorite princess growing up. I loved her. I loved how spunky she was. I loved how determined she was, and I think because I loved her so much that I felt like she grew up with me. I love playing her every night.”

Though the story of the musical was pretty close to the movie and the characters were pretty much the same (sans creepy sorcerer and his flying sidekick), there were a couple of favorite elements of the characters that felt … amiss.

Lila Coogan can sing extremely well. But there was something about her Anya that missed the vibe we love so much in the movie. Yes, Coogan’s Anya tried to put up strength with a new “I’m a street sweeper who walked across the country fending for myself” line, but something about it didn’t feel natural. While Coogan’s singing voice fit the beloved songs perfectly, her speaking stage voice was a bit much. The strong-willed nature seemed a little lost in a more fearful-sounding character. There was even a “fight scene” in which the lead defends Dimitri from a handful of thugs with a baseball bat, but it wasn’t believable.

Perhaps we’re doing a bit too much comparison, but remember the ’97 Anya? Remember her confident, I-don’t-care swagger? Her effortless teasing of Dimitri and their amazing chemistry, and how you could believe she could hold her own hanging with the boys? This is the Anya we would have loved to see on stage.

Yes, this musical is different. But remember in the animated film how the battered princess saved the day by breaking Rasputin’s bottle-thingy and he could do nothing to stop her? Remember the “This is for Dimitri, this is for my family, and this is for you! Dasvidanya!” line? Throughout the whole film and especially in the climax, no one could question her spunk and confidence in herself. She was the hero, period. And yes, the musical couldn’t very well have that same scene at the end because the magic element was taken out, but the replacement scene didn’t quite make Anya the clear hero.

It almost seemed like everything that happened to her — finding Dimitri to bring her to Paris, Dimitri making her grandma talk to her and find out who she was, and then the villain having a change of heart — were just lucky circumstances that led to her “happily ever after.” And it seems that the underdeveloped relationship between Anya and Dimitri led to the ending feeling much more like “she ran away from her duty to her country for this street kid she just met” rather than “she’s confident in her identity and is following her heart.” We don’t expect the musical Anya to be a carbon copy of the animated Anya, but we did miss her spirit.

So maybe this musical is best for those who have forgotten the ’97 movie, are able to let go of the movie, or, like the writer, have seen it once or never. In that case, it’s a beautiful take on the legend and a romantic and fantastic take on the history of the Romanovs. So if you are able to let go of the movie, expect a wonderful night.
The music? Impeccable. The costumes? Absolutely perfect. The set? Inspired. Some cast favorites were Tari Kelly as Countess Lily, Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad and Stephen Bower as Dimitri. Kelly stole the show in all her fresh, new scenes with Staudenmayer, including the new original song “The Countess and the Common Man.”

All in all, movie biases and expectations aside, the musical’s ability to adapt the classic story to become more realistic and adult while maintaining the feeling of fantasy and fairy tale was impressive.

“I think people go to the theater sometimes to dream a little, and not escapism in a bad sense," McNally says. "We know the realities of the real world, but to be for a while in a different time when things were a little more graceful and poetic and romantic, I think people are grateful to make a journey to the past.”

The show runs through March 1.

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