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‘Anastasia’ a sumptuous feast for the eyes in musical take on Russian princess

Lila Coogan (as Anya, center) and the company of "Anastasia." | Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

Lila Coogan (as Anya, center) and the company of "Anastasia." | Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

The story of the last Russian royalty isn’t pretty. In 1918, The Romanovs – Czar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra and their five children – Olga, 22, Tatiana, 21, Maria, 19, Anastasia, 17 and 13-year-old Alexei – were herded into a basement and executed at point-blank range. Although the fate of Anastasia was debated for years, it’s now generally acknowledged that she died with the rest of her immediate family. Scholars have written endlessly about what brought the Romanovs to that merciless end, but it’s safe to say the royal family was living like, well, emperors while many of their subjects starved.

‘Anastasia’
★★★
When: Through April 7
Where: Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $27 – $123
Info: Broadwayinchicago.com

The brutality at the core of the Romanov’s story has been fairytale-ized clean out of “Anastasia,” a gorgeous musical (now playing at the Nederlander Theatre) that has the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna surfacing as an amnesiac street sweeper in 1927 Russia. There’s an irresistible romance to the idea that a secret princess walks the world, and director Darko Tresnjak capitalizes on it by giving “Anastasia” a heightened, dream-like feel. Even the hungry peasants of Russia are like figures form a storybook.

Still, the story imagined by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) has as much to do with the Romanovs as Caesar salad has to do with Julius Caesar. Fair enough. That’s precisely what you’d expect from a family-friendly musical inspired by a 1997 animated movie. Little girls in twirly tulle princess dresses (and there were many of them in the audience opening night) do not want to see a princess shot to death.

Spoiler alert: Anastasia finds love and happiness in the musical tale.

The bones of the musical don’t lie in Russia so much as they do in a fairly standard quest story. Anya (Lila Coogan) is the feisty heroine in search of her true self. Dmitry (Stephen Brower) is the scrappy young man who is a criminal only because the cruel world has left him no other options, and besides, his crimes are cons that don’t seem to actually hurt anybody. Gleb (Jason Michael Evans) is the self-loathing villain who wants to kill the heroine, but who is so burdened with emotional baggage (category is: sins of the father) there is never much question that he’ll find redemption. Countess Lily (Tari Kelly) and Vlad (Edward Staudenmayer) are comic sidekicks with rambunctious novelty numbers. Finally, there’s the Dowager Empress (Joy Franz), a proud, embittered woman-of-years who must learn to love again.

The plot involves Dmitry and Vlad trying to pass off Anya as Anastasia (shades of “My Fair Lady”), so they can collect the hefty reward the Dowager is offering for the return of her long-lost granddaughter. Complications ensue when Anya actually starts remembering her life as Anastasia, and when Gleb follows her to Paris so he can shoot her and rid Russia of the Romanovs once and for all.

Lila Coogan as Princess Anastasia and Stephen Brower as Dmitry in the national touring production of "Anastasia." | Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

Lila Coogan as Princess Anastasia and Stephen Brower as Dmitry in the national touring production of “Anastasia.” | Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade

The cast is terrific: Coogan delivers the show’s signature ballad “Once Upon a December” with the requisite amount of innocence and yearning and brings fiery hear-me-roar determination to the anthemic “Journey to the Past.” Brower’s Dmitry is as wholesome as criminals come. In another life, he’d be one of the “Newsies.” Kelly turns Countess Lily into a Russian Carol Burnett, which is genuinely hilarious. Evans’ Gleb is a “Les Miserables” Javert-lite, which is exactly what is called for. Franz’ imperious Dowager is appropriately regal with and without a tiara.

But the real stars here are Aaron Rhyne’s projections and Donald Holder’s lighting design. They are so cinematic that much of “Anastasia” feels like watching a 3-D movie. Russia, with its dazzling onion domes and glittering snowfall, is a wonderland. Anya’s dimly remembered past is mostly twinkling jewels and whirling ballrooms. The ghosts occasionally tormenting her dreams are beautiful, waltzing specters who resemble the children of the hitchhiking ghosts in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride and the wraithlike willis of the ballet “Giselle.”

From the St. Petersburg skyline to the mansard roofs of Paris to a cross-continental a train ride that hurtles like a virtual roller coaster, “Anastasia” looks spectacular. When everybody takes the lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower, it’s positively dizzying.

Rhyne and Holder cover Russia with sheens of icy blue and silver sleet. Snowflakes have the grace of ballerinas. The ruthless world of the Bolsheviks leeches the very color from the trees, leaving a landscape of black and white. Costume designer Linda Cho puts the cast in dun-colored drab in Russia and flapper dresses all the colors of a flower garden when the action moves to France.

The visuals are inarguably breathtaking. And since this is a story of lost memories, it’s perhaps fitting that you’ll remember them more than anything else about “Anastasia.”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.