‘Anastasia’ Is a Romanov Roller Coaster

Lila Coogan in "Anastasia." Courtesy Kennedy Center.

Taking a ride on the “Anastasia” is like being on a theme-park roller coaster: twists and turns, scenery and history rushing by, mountains and cities, the last, bejeweled gasps of the Russian aristocracy, commissars and con men, princesses and dowagers, St. Petersburg and Paris, Disney and Broadway razzle and dazzle.

And still — and I imagine other productions in other places seem the same — at the end of the day, you feel as if you just sat down in the Kennedy Center Opera House seats a second ago, feeling exhausted. This production, which runs through Nov. 25 — it’s the start of a new national tour — is the musical very loosely based on the 1997 Disney animated cartoon, as well as partly on a long-time-ago film starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner.

It’s still — more and a lot less — the same improbable story about a couple of Russian con men living drably in St. Petersburg in the tough aftermath of the Revolution. They’re with a lost girl named Anya (the great song-belter Lila Coogan), who may or may not be the last, lost surviving member of the royal Romanovs butchered by the Bolsheviks, the youngest daughter of the family, named Anastasia.

Anya doesn’t remember who she is, but she might be, could be, the fabled Anastasia. And that’s what the plan is for the con — to get themselves to Paris and be presented to the Dowager Empress as the family heir, who controls what remains of the family fortune. The Empress — played with a melancholy and quite touching air of sanity by Joy Franz — has seen quite a few princess wannabes and impostors already, much to her dismay. She’s the solid core of a glitzy horde of Russian royals, aristocrats and hangers-on in exile in Paris, getting jobs as doormen or drivers, dressed to the nines, longing for the good old days, dancing the Charleston in the 1920s.

Conceived by Broadway veterans Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and playwright Terrence McNally, the show throws roughly 30 songs and numbers, a dozen threads of plot and improbability and the fastest moving historical travelogue at the audience, which on opening night appeared to be made of many mothers and their numerous princesses, who, after settling down, began to see themselves as wearing a tiara.

Mostly, the production — which has impeccable, high-tech and imaginative stagecraft to soothe the restless soul that might want to see a little clarity — charms you into weary submission.

Even after encounters with a love-stricken commissar, periodic appearances of the Romanovs dancing at a snowflake-showered ball and a burlesque-style clumsy dance with the dowager’s assistant and one of the con men, an old swain, you end up sighing, sort of shaking your head and finally throwing up your hands in helpless surrender. It is (let it be said) not the finest of Broadway fare, but it is, well, kind of enjoyable, even moving, beyond the confusion.

It’s a busybody kind of show. It never leaves you alone, like a carny barker with a certain amount of charm. The Charleston is loads of fun, the train ride to Paris is tremulous and dangerous and some of the music — especially those memory-driven nostalgic Romanov numbers of yore — is sweetly nostalgic in a Russian “Gone with the Wind” way.

Others songs are full-voiced (especially by Coogan, and her partner and love interest, Stephen Brower as Dmitri), not to mention Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad, the other con man. But many of the songs seem pitched to the rafters, as if in search of another “Gravity.”

I’d say Ahrens and Flaherty, while delivering a predictably entertaining product, have done better, especially with “Tiny Dancer,” which premiered at the Kennedy Center, and McNally, often acerbic and edgy, seems an odd choice for this project.

But, you do give in.

Finally, you just watch the little girl and her sister sitting in front of you, one of them hands shutting off her ears as a commissar holds a gun to Anastasia’s head, both watching in absolute dreamy state of trance as, as she should, Anya becomes Anastasia.

There be princesses here.

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