Don’t we all fantasize about being someone else?

Doesn’t every little girl like to play princess, dressing up in gowns and tiaras?

What if that childish fantasy was once your reality?

I first heard the story of Anastasia Romanova in high school when we studied the Russian Revolution. Anastasia was the youngest daughter of the last Czar, Nikolai II. As a child, Anastasia’s life was a dream filled with ballet and ball gowns, caviar and champagne. But you can safely sit on a powder keg for only so long….

In 1917, the Romanov family was imprisoned and later executed by firing squad. Honestly, I would have more sympathy for them if not for the pogroms. Certainly the children didn’t do anything to deserve their fate, but neither did the Jews or the multitudes of starving peasants.

Rumors spread like a wildfire that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, somehow escaped the carnage and survived. The Dowager Empress, living in Paris, offers a handsome reward to anyone who can produce her living granddaughter. This inspires two con artists, Vlad and Dmitry, to come up with a plan.

Anya is a poor street sweeper who suffers from amnesia. Her memories of palace life are little more than phantoms and whispers that nightly haunt her dreams. Lila Coogan sings of them in a crystal clear soprano forte and great conviction.

“Follow in my footsteps, shoe by shoe.”

Time to play Pygmalion. Vlad — who used to pass for a count to get into parties and have affairs with ladies — teaches Anya how to walk, curtsy and dance like a royal. Edward Staudenmayer is a classic shyster as Vlad. Handsome, charming and poised, he uses a devil-may-care swag to mask the noise of his growling stomach.

“A Russian rat must be clever to survive.”

With his mother dead and his father a political prisoner in a gulag, Dmitry raised himself on the streets of St. Petersburg, hiding and stealing to survive. Stephen Brower imbues Dmitry with boyish charm, a good heart, and the wide eyes of a romantic. His heartstrings and purse strings are pulling him apart. So which will he follow?

These rumors of a living Romanov are a threat to the nascent Bolshevik state. Determined to quash this “fake news” is Deputy Commissioner Gleb, played by Jason Michael Evans. Like all great villains, Gleb is the hero of his own story. Like Javert in Les Miserables, he is dogged in his pursuit of the phantom princess, stalking them all the way to Paris.

“You can’t be anyone unless you first recognize yourself.”

The Dowager Empress, Maria Fyodorovna tenaciously clings to the hope that Anastasia is still alive. But Anya’s not the only claimant. As the letters from cons come pouring in, hope withers. She’s nobody’s fool and doesn’t suffer them lightly. Like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, Joy Franz gives the Dowager a proud and dignified air even in her decline.

The scenic and projection designs by Alexander Dodge and Aaron Rhyne are spectacular works of art unto themselves. The backdrop was composed of three hundred micro-screens, giving it a highly cinematic feel. With Costume Designer Linda Cho, they really captured the splendor that once was the Russian monarchy and the gray-faded glory that followed.

The music by Stephen Flaherty was reminiscent of the Golden Age of Broadway like Rogers and Hammerstein. But my standout favorite number was “Land of Yesterday,” capturing the uninhibited syncopation of the Roaring Twenties. The Neva Club is filled with ex-pat Russian blue bloods who pine for their lost glory days. But I have to say that their Parisian present ain’t half bad, either. On opening night, we were treated to understudy Alison Ewing who lit up the house as Countess Lilly.

Anastasia is a fantastic dream, spectacular to behold and filled with love and daring adventure. Like all fairy tales, the characters border on the cartoonish, yet they are played with great heart. So bring the kids and don’t forget your inner child whose dreams are past but not forgotten.

Broadway San Diego’s Anastasia is playing at the Civic Theatre Oct 1-6.

Republished from San Diego Jewish World