The idea that the Grand Duchess Anastasia, of the Russian Romanov dynasty, might have survived the execution that killed the rest of her family in 1918 has been a popular one for decades. It inspired not just the animated film version of 1997 (one that departed hugely from the facts) but, before that, a play that became the basis for the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman. That work provides the starting point for the 2016 stage version of the story, now in Sarasota for a brief run at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Originally set to tour here two seasons ago and postponed due to the pandemic, this Anastasia takes a more adult view of the tale of Anya (Kyla Stone), an amnesiac orphan whom two Russian con men attempt to groom as the duchess, to earn reward money offered by Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Gerri Weagraff). It’s certainly more plausible than the animated film. (Don’t expect to see an undead Rasputin and his sidekick bat here.) But book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (who added a host of new songs to the originals they wrote for the movie) wisely balance some of the inherent darkness of the story with lighter moments to keep the younger crowd onboard.
And no one is truly evil here. This show replaces that villainous Rasputin, determined to kill off all the Romanovs, with a dedicated Bolshevik named Gleb (Brandon Delgado). He’s the character who’s supposed to hunt down and eliminate the impostor or duchess, as the case may be, but he’s conflicted, with his own back story. And the con men, Dmitry (Sam McClellan) and Vlad (Bryan Seastrom) aren’t bad, either, just hungry in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
Dmitry’s a charming chancer who naturally reveals a more genuine side as he begins to fall for Anya, during the Pygmalion-like process of transforming a street sweeper into a lady. And Vlad, too, cares for Anya in an almost fatherly way, although his heart, such as it is, belongs to the Countess Lily (Madeline Raube), a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress who can provide the access to her they need if they can just make it to Paris.
All of the performers mentioned here are strong, with Stone providing plenty of spirit as well as a lovely voice as Anya, delivering the Act I closer “Journey to the Past” to highly appreciative applause. Delgado also possesses fine vocal talents and packs a lot of smoldering emotions into “The Neva Flows,” while McClellan has one of his best moments on “My Petersburg,” another crowd pleaser.
The Act II duet “The Countess and the Common Man,” performed as Lily and Vlad reunite, may be a bit too broadly comic for me, but there’s no doubt Raube and Seastrom execute it well. The show’s bigger dance numbers, like “Paris Holds the Key (/To Your Heart)” and “The Last Dance of the Romanovs” are smoothly performed. And an excerpt from Swan Lake, coming at a crucial point in Act II, is notable especially for the work of Lauren Teyke as Odette (she has a Sarasota connection through the Sarasota Cuban Ballet, and earned hometown applause the night I saw the show).
The music direction (by Jeremy Robin Lyons), choreography (Bill Burns) and costumes, especially those grand imperial gowns (by Linda Cho) all sweep us into the story and spectacle here. And special kudos to the projection designs (by Aaron Rhyne), which, combined with Alexander Dodge’s set design, take us believably from Czarist Russia ballrooms to a moving train to the streets of Paris and beyond.
Anastasia is onstage only this weekend at the Van Wezel, so if you haven’t made up your mind yet whether to see it, do so soon. It’s a thrilling adventure. Tickets, (941) 263-6799 or vanwezel.org.