Identity crisis renders Anastasia dull, derivative

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Lila Coogan is the central character in the national tour of Anastasia at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade Below: Coogan’s Anya awaits her fate with Stephen Brower (bowing) as Dmitry. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade

As much as we might like to think that the future of Broadway looks like Hamilton or Hadestown, I’m pretty sure the future looks more like Anastasia, the inconsequential musical based on the 1997 animated film (in turn based on the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman) that is now touring the country. Given how uninspired this show is, the fact that it ran for two years on Broadway is surprising, but perhaps lukewarm rehashes are just what audiences want. There seems to be an endless supply.

The one bold feature of the show, the single element that seems to give the show life and a reason for being, is its heavy reliance on giant screens as set pieces. There are a few actual backdrops, but projection designs do most of the work, and it’s an element that to me feels like cheating. I’d rather have too little than too much in design, a reason to ignite the imagination rather than have video game-like images sliding past my eyeballs for 2 1/2 hours. That high-tech gimmickry is the only thing that indicates this musical emerged in the 21st century.

The touring production now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre employs that flawlessly executed video design, but it overwhelms the actors, who are already struggling to make something of the halfhearted book by Terrence McNally and the surprisingly limp score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This musical team wrote the songs for the animated movie, and several of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are highlights here. But the songs they’ve created to beef up the story are, for the most part, forgettable. Only a few of the new numbers come close to something interesting, and two of them involve the complicated feelings Russians have about their homeland and its turbulent politics. The first, “Stay, I Pray You,” is a wistful goodbye song at a train station as conflicted citizens reflect on their need to flee and their sadness at doing so. The other, “Land of Yesterday,” is sung by nostalgic Russian expats at a Russian club in Paris who delight in celebrating and bemoaning their homeland (while dancing and drinking vodka).

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The bulk of the over-abundant score is bland except when it’s outright awful (ie, all the songs for Gleb, the bad guy Bolshevik). How is that possible from the team that created Ragtime, Once on This Island and A Man of No Importance, all gorgeous, poignant shows with emotional scores and catchy songs?

Director Darko Tresnjak, aside from relying too much on the big screens, seems content with skimming the surfaces of the execution of the Romanov family, Anastasia’s mysterious survival and the non-suspense of wondering if “Anya” really is the lost princess. There’s a love story that feels about as authentic as Russian salad dressing, and there’s a surprisingly bold rip-off of “The Rain in Spain” when two con-artists attempt to school a street sweeper in the ways of royalty so they can pass her off as the long-lost princess. During “Learn to Do It” I kept expecting Dmitry and Vlad to shout, “By George I think she’s got it!”

Amid all the derivative drivel, there’s a surprising bright spot in Act 2 when two secondary characters, Vlad and Lily, decide they’re doing a sketch on “The Carol Burnett Show,” and for the length of “The Countess and the Common Man,” it feels like we’ve entered another realm entirely, one where entertainment actually matters and the skills of the performers (Edward Staudenmayer and Tari Kelly) are put to effective use. Otherwise, we have sweet-voiced leads Lila Coogan as Anya-Let’s-Just-Call-Her-Anastaisa and Stephen Brower as Dmitry being sincere and feisty with 0% substance and just as much romantic spark.

What does this musical have to say to us? Try not to die when your family is executed? Amnesia is totally reversible? We all have conflicted feelings about our homeland? Digital sets are awesome? Princess dresses are pretty? Anastasia is the kind of theatrical venture that seems like an amiable cash grab: professional and (c)harmless and, except for the producers, completely unnecessary. As I said, the future of Broadway.

Anastasia continues through Sept. 29 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Bouncy Island breezes blow at TheatreWorks

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Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas) is lifted by the cast of Once This Island, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Last Saturday I reviewed the TheatreWorks production of Once on This Island, the charming musical fairy tale by the Ragtime/Rocky team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. My review ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, and you can read it here.

Director Robert Kelley’s production captures much of the show’s charm and energy, and the cast is delightful. But I’ve been thinking about what it is – the production? the musical itself? – that left me feeling rather emotionally shut out of the story at the end.

First, here’s what I liked:

Kelley’s production bursts with tropical color in Joe Ragey’s painterly sets and Cathleen Edwards’ bright costumes, but what really energizes the show, from beginning to end, is the glorious choreography by Gerry McIntyre, a member of the original 1990 Broadway cast. There’s meaning in every movement, from the broad, bold swirl of an up-tempo number like “Mama Will Provide” to the more somber, folkloric feel of “A Part of Us.” McIntyre works wonders with the 11-member cast, making a small village feel much larger.

I think the answer to my emotional distance can be found in the general tone of the production, which is so bright and cheery and brisk. That combined with the graphic illustration-type set design makes the show feel less human and more like animation. Sure, it’s a fairy tale, but a grown-up one involving issues of race and death and resurrection. The difficulty comes in balancing the lightness of the fairy tale style with the darkness in the story itself. That’s where my disconnect happened.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Robert Kelley and actor Adreinne Muller about Once on This Island for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

TheatreWorks’ Once on This Island continues through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

An Ahrens & Flaherty weekend

Broadway may have been pretty quiet last Saturday night (what with the stagehands strike and all), but the Broadway show tunes were ringing sweetly through the Bay Area.

More specifically the show tunes of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were in the air on both sides of the Bay.

In Berkeley, the newly formed Berkeley Playhouse opened its inaugural production, Ahrens and Flaherty’s Seussical, the much-revised Broadway flop that attempted to find music in the stories of Dr. Seuss.

The Berkeley Playhouse goal is to create high-quality, professional theater that appeals to all ages, and artistic director Elizabeth McKoy and director Kimberly Dooley have succeeded mightily in meeting that goal.

Performed in the Ashby Stage, Seussical features a fantastic cast of professionals, non-professionals, adults and kids – which is a wonderful thing to see.

The show blends pieces of “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Cat in the Hat,’’ “Horton Hatches the Egg,’’ “McElligot’s Pool,’’ “The One Feathre Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz,’’ “The Butter Battle Book’’ and “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!’’ to name a few. And the mish-mash nature of the musical might have seemed scattershot in a big, slick, overly produced Broadway show. But within the confines of the Ashby Stage, it all seems pretty agreeable and often quite charming.

The heart of the show is Horton the Elephant, played by Brian Herndon, whose loyalty to the invisible Whos and to the egg he’s trying to hatch is very nearly heartbreaking. Herndon is terrific, as is Gail Wilson as Jojo (alternating in the role with Madeleine Roberts), the little boy who thinks extraordinary thinks (Jojo’s “It’s Possible” is a show highlight).

Another pillar of the large cast is Rebecca Pingree as Gertrude, the bird with two distinguishing features: her one-feather tail and her giant crush on Horton.

Dooley’s vibrant production isn’t cutesy or twee – it’s energetic and straightforward and utterly delightful. Her choreography is lively but not too involved, and on the technical side of things, Lisa Lutkenhouse’s costumes are enchanting (especially the polka dots for the Whos).

Music director Tal Ariel (also the keyboards maestro) and his three-piece band perform the Ahrens-Flaherty score beautifully, giving it some welcome urban edge.

The overall solidity of the production, which blends the charm and enthusiasm of community theater with the dependability and strength of professional theater makes Seussical a promising debut from Berkeley Playhouse and bodes well for future family-friendly productions.

(Seussical continues through Dec. 2. Visit for information.)

Over at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center Ahrens and Flaherty themselves were singing songs from Seussical (“Green Eggs and Ham” and “It’s Possible”), along with songs culled from their nearly 25 years of writing musicals together.

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music, a special presentation of Broadway by the Bay was a short-run revue featuring the composers playing (Flaherty), talking (mostly Ahrens) and singing (again, mostly Ahrens) along with some tremendous vocal assists from their friends Marin Mazzie and Jason Daniely – the “golden couple of Broadway.”

Mazzie, taking a break from being the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, and Daniely, taking a break from Curtains, brought some Broadway razzle dazzle and two gorgeous – and I do mean gorgeous – voices to the stage.

Picking highlights from the 90-minute show, which always felt real and unforced (unlike so many revues), is difficult. Of course Mazzie singing two of her songs from Ragtime, “Goodbye My Love” and “Back to Before,” was electrifying. She has a set of pipes that elicit the chills and tears and thrills that great show tunes should elicit.

Daniely’s “Streets of Dublin” from A Man of No Importance was equally exciting, and the composers were rather adorable on “The Show Biz,” a number cut from Ragtime.

The only show not represented in the revue is Dessa Rose, but that’s a minor complaint in the face of such gorgeous songs as “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past,” both from the animated film Anastasia, or the sexy “Mama Will Provide” from Once on This Island.

Flaherty’s bravura performance of the title song from Ragtime brought down the house, and though the evening had its share of lovely surprises – cute comedy numbers from Lucky Stiff, the first Ahrens and Flaherty show, and intriguing tastes (“Opposite You,” “I Was Here”) of The Glorious Ones, the latest Ahrens and Flaherty musical, which opened last week – the best of all was from a show that isn’t even finished yet.

The song is “Silent,” and it’s from a work in progress called Legacy based on photographs Ahrens’s father took of New York. The song is inspired by a willow tree in Central Park, and it ends up being about aging and being present and part of a beautiful world. In a word, it’s spectacular. Mazzie sang it while sitting on the piano bench next to Flaherty, and it couldn’t have been more moving. This is a song that will get to people for decades.

But that’s the thing about Ahrens and Flaherty, something that became even more apparent over the course of Words & Music: these are songwriters who challenge themselves to write new and different things each time out, and succeed because they do it with such tremendous heart, integrity and intelligence. Sure isn’t enough of that on Broadway.

Visit the official Ahrens & Flaherty Web site at

Stephen Flaherty sings!

Sometimes you do everything you can do to be an organized person. Then the universe has other plans.

Take, for instance, Stephen Flaherty, the composer behind such Broadway musicals as Ragtime, Once on This Island and Seussical the Musical.

He and his writing partner, Lynn Ahrens, made plans about two years ago to create and appear in a short-run revue of their work for San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay. Executive director Greg Phillips had the great idea to bring the composers out west, and he proposed dates far in the future: Nov. 8 through 11, 2007.

Well, that day has arrived, and wouldn’t you know it? Ahrens and Flaherty opened a new musical at New York’s Lincoln Center only three nights ago. The Glorious Ones, about an itinerant Italian acting troupe, received some lovely reviews, and though they could be forgiven for canceling because of calendar clashes, Ahrens and Flaherty were on a plane Wednesday with the plan of spending today in technical rehearsals and opening tonight.

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music runs through Sunday at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center and features the composers discussing their work as well as Broadway performers (and husband-and-wife duo) Marin Mazzie (taking a break from Spamalot) and Jason Daniely (taking a break from Curtains) offering their golden pipes to sing the duo’s songs. Flaherty will also be the evening’s accompanist.

On the phone from his New York home before heading west, Flaherty, 47, says he remembers early in his career when he would accompany singers.

“Since we’ve been rehearsing the show, I kind of forgot how much work it is to play for singers — you have to work your whole body. It’s fun and challenging,” he says.

The biggest challenge of all, though, has been deciding what to perform in the 90-minute show. In addition to the Ahrens-Flaherty hits, there have also been the non-hits with glorious scores: A Man of No Importance and Dessa Rose chief among them.

“Of course there are so many songs we’ve written that we love,” Flaherty says. “We’re the parents of those songs, and though we don’t want to play favorites, you’ve got 90 minutes. You have to make difficult choices.”

Flaherty says all the shows will be represented, including the new one, which features what he describes as “my most European score yet — it’s very romantic and lyrical with elements of down-and-dirty, rough-hewn humor.”

Because this is the first time he and Ahrens have done anything like this, Flaherty says the song list may change throughout the five performances.

One song that may pop up is “Something Beautiful” from a work-in-progress called Legacy. Another new one, “Anything I Got,” may also pop up in San Mateo before it lands in a revival of the duo’s My Favorite Year.

That’s what you get from a duo that has been working together for nearly 25 years and shows no signs of slowing down: a mix of old and new.

“This has been really emotional,” Flaherty says. “I met Lynn in the first month I moved to New York, and at the time, I was writing both music and lyrics. But then within six months of meeting Lynn, we were writing together.”

Poring over their songbook, Flaherty says each song is a distinct representation of who he and Ahrens were at the time.

“I look at a song from one of our first projects, Lucky Stiff, and think it just sounds like 1988,” Flaherty says. “Then I hear some of the `Ragtime’ songs and think about how we had to write four songs as an audition for the producer. That was our big break. I knew we could write that score, and that audition process was terrific and led us in a whole different direction.”

The follow-up to Ragtime was Seussical, a musical mash-up of Dr. Seuss stories. Flaherty says the sweet, family friendly show was a direct reaction to the serious tone of Ragtime.

“In Ragtime, our leading man got shot and killed every night,” he says. “We wanted to return to our silly roots.”

A Man of No Importance, which is set in Dublin, is also something of a reaction to Ragtime.

“I had a running joke while working on Ragtime that every time I wrote a song for an Irish character, the song got cut,” Flaherty says. “I started thinking maybe I should do something Irish-themed.”

Of course the Broadway stars will be singing — you can pretty much bet Mazzie will reprise the stirring “Back to Before,” which she introduced in Ragtime — but the composers will also be chiming in.

“Lynn will sing more than I will — she sings better than I do,” Flaherty says. “The whole point of the evening is to feel casual. It’s not a concert so much as a show about writing songs. It’s really about what it would be like if you were in my or Lynn’s living room while we’re creating songs.”

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music is at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday (Nov. 8 & 9); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 10); 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 11) at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$42. Call 650-579-5565 or visit