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One step at a time 

It may be past the appropriate month for "Once Upon a December," but now through January 26, Rochester audiences have the chance to see "Anastasia" on stage at the Auditorium Theatre. Based on the story of the real Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, this mythical tale alleges that she escaped the execution of the royal family in 1916. The stage musical is adapted from the 1997 animated film -- starring the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, and Angela Lansbury -- and grownup fans of that movie will find the plot somewhat changed, though many of the beloved songs and characters remain.

"Anastasia" first played at Connecticut's Hartford Stage in 2016, with 16 new songs and a rewritten script that deletes the villainous Rasputin and adds a romantic subplot between young, handsome con man Dmitry's counterpart, Vlad, who is an ex-member of the Imperial Court, and the Dowager Empress's lady-in-waiting, Countess Lily, among other things. The musical transferred to Broadway in 2017, and the first national tour launched in 2018.

The new-ish plot still centers on street sweeper Anya's amnesiac state -- and her chance meeting with Vlad and Dmitry that catapults the trio to Paris to find the Dowager Empress (grandmother to Anastasia and the lone heir to the Romanov empire after the family's execution). Once there, they try to prove Anya's identity as the missing Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov. Dmitry and Vlad are in it for the reward, and Anya desperately wants to go on a "Journey to the Past" to find her family.

The cast of this production is sizeable, and many of the scenes are bursting with such talent it's hard to know who -- or what -- to watch. A clear choice is Lila Coogan (Anastasia), a young starlet who's bound to go far during this production and beyond. With just a few shows and a degree from Syracuse University under her belt, Coogan manages the role of Anastasia as though she was born to play it, her high soprano voice soaring on each song, satisfying a nostalgic audience with the performances.

Opposite Coogan is Jake Levy (Dmitry), who joined the tour in late 2019. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing opposite Coogan, as their chemistry is palpable. Levy's voice is also strong and soaring, and he brings a unique energy to the stage. The other couple threatening to steal the show from the leads is Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad) and Alison Ewing (Countess Lily). While they are individually hilarious, the amount of laughs these two receive during their reuniting scene in act two and the corresponding number, "The Countess and the Common Man," is potentially the greatest of the night.

The ensemble cast is wonderful as well, especially the dancers who perform an excerpt from "Swan Lake" during the "Quartet at the Ballet" number near the end of act two. It's evident that the entire cast is highly qualified to play larger roles. The first act takes place in Russia, while the second act is set in Paris. The juxtaposition of the two cities is further enforced by a wealth of lighting, scenic, and projection technologies that turn an ordinary stage into a moving train track, a grand Russian palace, a snow flurry outside floor-to-ceiling windows, an orchard of cherry blossom trees, and the highest floors of the Eiffel Tower, to name a few. Because the show relies so heavily on this spectacular projection design by Aaron Rhyne, it's easy to imagine more shows may begin to implement such change.

"Anastasia" leaves audience members in happy spirits at the end of the show, chatting about how talented the cast is and trying to figure out how much of the 1997 plot was actually changed. While it's certainly an excuse to rewatch the cartoon film, don't skip this touring version. It's still a journey to the past -- and a welcome one, at that.

Leah Stacy is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to

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