LOGAN — The 670-seat Morgan Theatre at Utah State University’s Chase Center for the Arts was packed for the closing night of USU Opera’s production of Anastasia: The Musical on Monday, November 13. The USU production featured powerful vocals, stunning costuming, and brilliant leads as cornerstones of a solid student production.
The contemporary musical is an adaptation of the popular 1997 animated film of the same name, with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally. The adaption strips away the dark magic of the Rasputin storyline and replaces it with a story more grounded in the reign of the Bolsheviks, with a deputy commissioner of Stalin-era Soviet police as the primary antagonist of the orphan Anya and her friends Dimitry and Vlad.
I was impressed by the director’s note from Stefan Espinosa, who highlights the failings of both an out-of-touch leadership in the Romanv dynasty and the failings of communist Russia stripped of any fantasy with an overreaching eye on its citizens. It was an interesting lens through which to view the play and was clear in much of Espinosa’s direction. There was no glamorizing or sugarcoating the poverty-stricken people under the new regime. Similarly, it was obvious that the tsars were uninterested in meeting the needs of their citizens. While not all of the execution of this vision came through in the production, Espinosa’s eye for historic reality and his ability to see where this play sits in the world of 2023 was refreshing and insightful.
The closing performance began almost twenty minutes late, and took another fifteen to really feel like it was going. The beginning of the story shows Tsar Nicholas II (played by Ben Shaw) interacting with his family and young daughters prior to their brutal assassination. The scenes was cleverly staged as the family moved around the stage, seeming to have their photos taken in the exact positions that photos of the real family of Tsar Nicholas II were projected on the back of the set. The prologue features dancing with father and daughter, playing children, the departure of the Dowager Empress, and the murder of the Romanovs by the revolutionaries. However, despite many opportunities to gain emotional connection to the audience, there was no urgency or sense of the moment from the actors on stage. Sounds of gunshots and destruction were heard as the gentry slowly made their way off stage, but there was no panic or fear.
The conversation between Shaw’s Tsar Nicholas and his children was stilted and unfeeling. While I will grant the operatic nature of the direction was suitable to the style of the company, it did not convey the needed staging for the audience to engage early on. Shaw did have a redemptive performance and powerful vocals as Gorlinsky, though. Another noteworthy performance was from Sam Teuscher as Gleb. In Teuscher’s portrayal, Gleb seemed to emanate the self-righteous indulgence of Judge Claude Frolo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame with his singular loyalty to the cause of communism, while nursing a secret envy and passion for Anya that he knew was forbidden.
Fortunately, strong leads soon entered and carried the show. Holden Smith played Dimitry and was instantly striking and engaging. His vocal power was strong throughout the evening, but particularly impressive in “My Petersberg,” as Smith leads his counterpart across set pieces and tells a captivating story with perfect pitch and resonance. Beyond stellar vocals, Smith grasped nuances of the character that made him constantly compelling to watch. In the scene where Dimitry realizes with perfect certainty that he has found the grand duchess Anastasia in the orphan Anya, the realization seemed to be happening in real time. This is impressive in any acting, but given how many times this moment must have happened in previous performances and the rehearsal room, it was a profoundly tender moment to watch.
Opposite Smith was Abigail Geertsen, whose Anastasia was phenomenal. While she was a touch timid at first, Geertsen created a multifaceted, and later powerful, performance as the titular character. Geertsen knocked the score’s powerful anthems out of the park, such as “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December.” She brought a zeal to the character that was palpably fun. While her diminutive stature provided fun contrast to many of her scene partners, it in now way impeded her physicality, as she roundly beat a series of street ruffians in one scene. Geersten made Anastasia seem to enjoy the thrill of the fight as much as she embraced the twirling femininity of regal dances amongst her spectral ancestors. Her chemistry and banter with Smith were uninhibited, and she demonstrated the full power of an emotionally demanding character. The character begins the play squealing and shying away from the sound of a car backfiring and ends staring unflinchingly down the barrel of a gun being brandished at her with deadly intent. Geersten believably hit all of these moments and was impressive to watch from start to finish.
Caden Webb’s Vlad provided a strong third wheel to the lovers Dimitry and Anastasia. He was the right balance of kooky goof and thoughtful moderator of the young romantics’ banter. He carried several otherwise lifeless interactions and scenes with his wit and playful body choices. Webb managed to be regal, bedraggled, and foppish whenever the moment called for it. Never did it feel like the issue was forced when it came to pursuing his objectives from scene to scene.
Beyond that, much of the production was uncomplicated and serviceable. The choreography and dancing had its moments, particularly with Smith and Geertsen as the leads. The set featured many projections, and other simple and practical set pieces such as dual-sided columns, stairs and rotating platforms. The costume design by Dennis Hassan was strong, authentic, and helped create an interesting distinction between the fantasy of the tsars and the cold and brutal realism of the Bolsheviks. It was easily the strongest technical element and added needed definition to the characters throughout the play.
Overall, as other reviews have pointed out, the story does a nice job separating from the 1997 source material, but at times it does not let go quite enough. It is a play more grounded in reality but with minor plot points that create inconsistencies. USU took Anastasia and elevated it with stellar lead actors and strong vocalists across the board. It was a night I will yearn to remember, once upon a November.