By Joe Henderson
TAMPA — Let's say this up front: If you're a stickler for historical accuracy, you might be inclined to nitpick the musical Anastasia to pieces. That would be your loss.
The packed house at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on opening night Tuesday would confirm this. People weren't there for a history lesson. They embraced the high-energy production numbers and costumes and eye-popping computer-generated sets. They cheered a cast that captured them early and never let go. Most of all, they loved how it all wrapped around a princess fantasy and love story.
If that's more your speed, Anastasia is for you. Fans may already know the story from the 1997 animated movie, or a 1956 live-action film starring Ingrid Bergman, based on a play the year before. The 2015 musical, with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, combines both movies and creates new characters. It includes songs from the animated movie, including Once Upon A December, plus original music.
The story is, shall we say, loosely based on the saga of 17-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, the youngest daughter of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. The family, including young Anastasia, was murdered in 1918 during the Bolshevik revolution. DNA testing confirmed this in 2007.
But Anastasia presents a different story. In the play, her grandmother the Dowager Empress, played wonderfully by Joy Franz, flees to Paris and never gives up hope over the years that her beloved, favored Anastasia survived.
Because she would be the heir to a fortune, many imposters over the years have tried without success to convince the Empress that they are the true Anastasia. But when a couple of opportunists, Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) and Dimitry (Stephen Brower) happen upon a street sweeper in St. Petersburg named Anya (Lila Coogan), we begin to wonder if they have found the real thing.
Anya doesn't seem even to know herself, lamenting at one point in a haunting solo, "You don't know what it's like to not know who you are." Over time, though, she becomes convinced (maybe) that she actually is Anastasia.
There are a few obstacles along the way to peace, love, happiness and inheritance. Anya and her cohorts first have to escape Russia, which wasn't easy. They make their way to Paris, where they must convince grandma, another tough task.
Anya and Dimitry also deal with their deepening feelings for each other. It's complicated. But it's also dazzling.
Computer-generated scenery gave a true Broadway feel, complete with train travel, to the production. A couple marvelous dance scenes complete with a ghostly presence transport Anya back to a time where she might be reliving her true past, or might not. We're never quite sure because she is never sure.
Somehow, that uncertainty fits. The tale is wrapped around wistful attempts to tie up loose ends in life; but does anyone ever accomplish all of that? Sometimes, we just move on.
The audience embraced that concept and stood for a prolonged ovation at the conclusion. Coogan was wonderful in the lead role of Anya. It demanded strength, vulnerability and confidence amid uncertainty and adversity.
We see Brower, as Dimitry, transform from con artist to sympathetic as he confronts, denies, then accepts his true feelings for Anya. Tari Kelly as Countess Lily was a delightful, bawdy vamp whose comedic interplay with Vlad was a high point of the show. The chemistry between those two was obvious as Kelly milked every ounce out of her supporting role. And Franz, as the tortured Dowager Empress, gave a powerful interpretation of what it's like to long for something that remains just out of reach.
A word of warning: There are flashing strobes at a couple of points during the performance, along with the ear-banging sound of gunfire and explosions. Otherwise, prepare for a fast-track journey through time and distance that will send your emotions racing in opposite directions throughout the night. It's worth the trip.
$75 and up. Runs through Sunday at the Straz Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. For showtimes, visit strazcenter.org.