Lily Coogan, center, is Anya, the possibly-royal Russian heiress in the musical ‘Anastasia,’ now at Fair Park.
(Photo courtesy Evan Zimmerman)

Life spins out of control for the heroines of 2 very different shows: the musical ‘Anastasia’ and the bittersweet comedy ‘You Got Older’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
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Mae (Jenny Ledel) isn’t having the best week. Or month. Or, kinda, life. She broke up with her boyfriend, who was also her boss, so she quit her job and moved back to her hometown to look after her dad (Barry Nash), who is battling cancer, and she’s got her own mysterious rash that won’t go away. And she keeps dreaming about a cowboy (Max Hartman) who does unspeakably non-PC sex acts with her.

The words “you got older” are never spoken in You Got Older, a regional premiere from Kitchen Dog Theater; they don’t need to be. The essence of Mae’s life is that she’s in her 30s and feeling as directionless as she did in high school. Having all her siblings around doesn’t help much.

Clare Barron’s funny, sad, dark comedy has a lot of interesting ideas and characters in its 105 uninterrupted minutes, and while I enjoyed the time spent with them, about 90 minutes would probably have accomplished the same thing. The play starts in the wrong place; the grabbiest early scene, in which Mae enjoys an awkward flirtation with an old schoolmate (Ryan Woods) to whom she’s attracted, would have been the ideal jumping-off point and would kickstart our sympathy for her. (It’s a flaw in many modern plays that the authors insist on burying the lead, as if making the audience work is an indicator of artistic integrity.)

Structural problems aside, You Got Older paints an achingly real portrait of a family in crisis with humor and pathos. The entire cast delivers excellent performances, though Ledel is the emotional glue that binds the show, and Nash is heartbreakingly real.

 

Mae isn’t the only woman who has it bad. Grand Duchess Anastasia — the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II and Alexandra — never saw her 19th birthday, having been murdered by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

Or was she?

Rumors that Anastasia was spared from the firing squad began circulating almost immediately, and fueled a mystery that led to dramatic speculation for decades after.

But the musical Anastasia — based on the 1997 animated film, as well as the Ingrid Bergman potboiler of 1956 — isn’t too concerned with actual facts, but with the romanticism of “is she or isn’t she?”

The problem is that, of course, we basically have to believe that the amnesiac street urchin Anya (Lily Coogan) is the tragic royal. She has forgotten most of her past, but is haunted by memories of court, of having rifles aimed at her family, of the smell of her grandmother’s perfume. We’re easily convinced, and eventually two schemers — Dmitry (Stephen Brower) and Vlad  (Edward Staudenmayer) — who hoped to pass Anya off as the duchess begin to believe it, too … all the better for convincing the exiled Dowager Empress that her sole remaining family member is alive.

All of which adds a sense of pastiche to this generally charming and undeniably gorgeous production. It’s little bits of My Fair Lady, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Victor/Victoria  mixed together to make a rakish tale of good-natured frauds who may not be frauds at all.

For almost all of Act 1, the story focuses on the threesome plus the policeman Gleb (Jason Michael Evans), a kind of J.V. Javert who wants to either prove Anya is an imposter, or reveal her to be a true Romanov who must die for the sake of the revolution. It’s a weak role, more plot-driven than a necessary, and his dour, self-reflective solos bring the lightness of the show to several crashing halts. The focus changes in Act 2, with the introduction of mostly new characters, including Countess Lily (Tari Kelly), who provides sexy comic relief, and the dowager (Joy Franz). The musical takes a tonal shift as well, complete with not-fully-thought-out inconveniences and emotional confrontations.

But along the way, we are treated to Coogan’s impossibly lovely voice. Her songs (“In My Dreams,” “Journey to the Past” and more) dance on the air; she has the ideal sound for a Disney princess.

The palette and pacing are clearly influenced by the fluidity of an animated movie musical. This is seamlessly achieved via Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, which appears to be 85 percent screen projections with such authentic three-dimensional effect that you’d swear the Cossacks are storming in. Linda Cho’s Tony-nominated costumes, on the other hand, are entirely real and as dreamy as a girl’s imagination. One of the most inventive scenes — a train ride across the Russian countryside — dazzles with its combination of moving images and moving people.

The score is less consistently successful. (Lyricist Lynn Ahrens resorts to rhyming “Romanov” with Stroganoff,” an unworthy pun that’s tantamount to a white flag.) But more often than not, the songs perk along, driven by the energy of Coogan, Brower, Staudenmayer and Kelly. Terrence McNally’s script mostly sticks to the straight and narrow, but he can’t resist pointing out that, as much as we may romanticize the possible survival of the innocent teenaged royal, the Romanovs were overthrown by popular revolt just as the Founding Fathers kicked out George III and Louis and Marie Antoinette lost their heads — they were one-percenters who took more than they gave. That’s a degree of Russian collusion I can get behind.