This is a review of the October 8th performance of “Anastasia” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, followed by an exclusive interview with Jake Levy, who plays Dmitry in the musical.
The best stories – or in this case, musicals – are the ones that have at least a sliver of truth to them. An example of this is “Anastasia,” a collaboration between playwright Terrence McNally, musician Stephen Flaherty, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. It debuted on Broadway in 2017 as a quasi-representation of the 1997 film, which was in turn inspired by the legend surrounding the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, daughter to Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov emperors. There was a widely held belief for some time, albeit one that is likely untrue, that Anastasia (and her brother) somehow survived the execution of her family perpetrated by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.
It’s a more sordid premise than most are used to when it comes to musicals, but the national tour of “Anastasia,” which is now playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through October 27th and then at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts between November 5th and 17th, plays the what-if-Anastasia-really-did-survive game in full. This gives the portrayals and musical numbers an added layer of substance that assists with the suspense. As a fairytale wrapped in a thriller, “Anastasia” appeals to most audience members, each of whom can easily find a nuance or two of the narrative to latch onto. On paper, it might seem like the show is made up of thematically incompatible parts, but award-winning director Darko Tresnjak does a skilled job of highlighting the terror and emotional toll experienced by its characters during that time period while at the same time adding in memorable moments of levity. Humor and love, in this case, become the antidote for the beleaguered Russians in the early 20th century.
The production crafts a well-thought-out scenario that sees Anastasia escape her demise at a ball not long after she says goodbye to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, who bestows her granddaughter with a music box as a parting memento before moving to Paris. Anastasia survives the attack, despite losing her memory in the process. A decade later, now employed as a street sweeper, she knows herself instead as “Anya,” oblivious to rumors in her home country of Russia that she may still be among the living. Two grifters – including the ex-aristocrat Vlad and the dashing Dmitry — prey on these rumors, deciding to conjure their own Anastasia via auditions in an attempt to extort the Empress’ emotions and possible reward money. Ironically, Anya is chosen as the new Anastasia, though this also attracts the attention of Gleb, a Bolshevik general, whose father murdered Anastasia’s family. Loyal to his party, Gleb wants to finish his father’s job, and gives chase to the determined Anya, who, accompanied by Dmitry and Vlad, travels to Paris (where the grandmother is with her lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily) as she continues to snap out of her amnesia. Romance, too, is in the air for more than one couple and the final outcome is feel-good as it neatly ties all the threads together.
Aesthetically, in denoting the splendor of Saint Petersburg and Paris, the musical is a gorgeous spectacle. Alexander Dodge’s set of elongated window arches, which is tailor made for Aaron Rhyne’s digital projections, is beautifully bold and feels big-league. The same can be said for Linda Cho’s Tony-nominated dazzling gowns, stately suits, and robes that at once catch the eye’s fancy from the very first scene. In addition, Donald Holder’s lighting nicely envelops the characters in this musical adventure as does Peter Hylenski’s resonant sound design. Last but not least of the important creative forces is Peggy Hickey, whose choreography packs a jolt of energy at the start of both acts and particularly during the delightfully graceful “Quartet at the Ballet” sequence.
The performances are all quite strong, with everyone hitting their mark and always being in the right place at the right time, even with the multitude of quick costume changes. The show is in large part a success because its title character is depicted with the appropriate emotional undertones. For instance, Delilah Rose Pellow and Taylor Quick, who play Little and Young Anastasia, respectively, emote an unimpeachable innocence that immediately earns the audience’s investment and sympathy. Then, as adult Anastasia, or Anya, Lila Coogan never misses a beat in conveying the hope of a subjugated Russia through the eyes of its once-upon-a-time Princess. Coogan’s vocals and expressions, too, impart a poignant rawness that powerfully come through in songs such as “In My Dreams,” “Once Upon a December,” and notably “Journey to the Past,” when she holds the “last!” note with a goosebumps-inducing staunchness, essentially communicating that Anya will never relent in striving to reclaim her identity.
Anya’s seemingly “otherworldly” instinct to reconnect with her Dowager Empress grandmother in Paris is a big driver of the plot, and its resolution is moving. Joy Franz is the Empress, who, in her older age, has taken “solace in [her] bitterness” over the tragedy that befell her family, causing her to surrender the notion of finding the true Anastasia among all the impostors. Under her rough exterior, the Empress teems with a lovely genuineness that stirs as affectingly as it does because of Franz’s ardency and soulfulness.
Naturally, Anya develops a romantic connection to Dmitry with whom (due to her circumstances) she shares the same social class as well as the commonality of having no family. Jake Levy, a 2018 graduate of UCLA’s Ray Bolger Musical Theater program, has made the seamless transition from the classroom to the quintessential male lead. If there was a draft of musical theatre talent to choose from, like in sports, Levy would easily be a first-round pick, if not the No. 1 overall selection. He’s certainly playing like one and it’s no secret why New York snatched him up for a top role in Off-Broadway’s “Superhero,” or why he procured the part of Dmitry.
In his first official performance of the role, Levy already comes across like a veteran with his crisp delivery of dialogue, effortless singing, and devotion to his persona even when the spotlight isn’t on him. He effectively portrays the transition of Dmitry as being closed-off emotionally to one who willingly and happily tells his story to Anya in “My Petersburg,” only to subsequently be fearful of losing her if she ascends her throne again. Their bond is secure, however, and Dmitry and Anya’s declaration of love to each other during “In a Crowd of Thousands” is sweetly endearing and emphasizes the performers’ likability as an onstage couple.
Edward Staudenmayer’s Vlad is Dmitry’s (older) right-hand man and he has quite the remarkable past as a member of royalty who has fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, he still has his deep-toned, reassuring voice to go along with stellar comic timing — a product of Staudenmayer’s absolute commitment to the character. The bearded Vlad is reminiscent of an erudite Cambridge professor, but with less self-esteem and a wild side, which manifests uproariously in his reunion with his former love (and personal assistant to the Dowager Empress), Countess Lily, played perfectly by Tari Kelly. Vlad and Lily’s sexual innuendo and vigorous chemistry sears, sizzles, and provokes with a ticklish, out-of-breath laughter in the steamy and satirical number, “The Countess and the Common Man,” which may on its own justify the price of a ticket to see this show. Kelly, who channels the best of Bette Midler, is also a liberated one-woman comedy show in “Land of Yesterday.”
Every good tale has a faithful antagonist and Jason Michael Evans’ Gleb is exactly that. Gleb is compelled to rid Russia of any last vestige of the Romanovs, but unlike his uncompromising father, Gleb is haunted by an ambivalence about carrying out his mission. Evans’ baritenor voice is well-suited for the role and his songs – “The Neva Flows” and “Still” – abruptly explode with bursts of high notes that seemingly reflect the intensity of Gleb’s inner turmoil and racing thoughts.
Finally, of the fabulous ensemble members, Ashlee Dupré, Mark MacKillop, and Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr. deserve special acclaim for their top-notch “Swan Lake” performance in Act II.
It’s apropos that the national tour of “Anastasia” has another two separate runs in Southern California (after a brief engagement in San Diego) as it gives residents the opportunity to see it once if not for a second or third time. There’s much to appreciate about the production, which unfurls an intriguing story that tips its hat to history and heartily satisfies by resolving its emotional stakes via an interesting journey that takes audiences from Saint Petersburg to Paris.
Interview with Jake Levy
How did you end up getting the role of Dmitry?
Levy: I auditioned for the role in New York promptly after closing Tom Kitt’s new Off-Broadway Musical ‘Superhero’ at 2nd Stage Theatre. After a few rounds of auditions and doing the material in front of the creative team, I got the call! It was very exciting as it is my national tour debut!
What has been the biggest challenge or surprise you’ve encountered in portraying this character?
Levy: One of the largest challenges I’ve encountered was pinpointing the specific moments where Dmitry starts transitioning from his emotionally guarded and smooth self to his empathetic and caring side. This transition is what makes Dmitry a rich and developed character, and the more the audience and I can see the layers of protection being removed from Dmitry, the more compelling the story becomes.
As a recent UCLA graduate of musical theater, performing at the Pantages is probably the pinnacle for a stage actor, at least in Southern California. Plus, you’re performing in your backyard. What was it like performing at the Pantages on opening night?
Levy: Although I grew up on Long Island in New York, LA is definitely a second home to me. Performing at the Pantages on opening night was a dream! To share this beautiful story with my family, friends, educators from UCLA, and even most of the original creative team of ‘Anastasia’ was probably one of the most nerve-racking and rewarding things I’ve done in my career thus far. I can only hope I have more moments like that opening night in the future of my career!
For more information about the national tour of “Anastasia” at the Pantages Theatre, please visit:
For details on the musical’s Segerstrom Center run, visit:
And for tour dates, go to: