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Photo: Evan Zimmerman
Photo: Evan Zimmerman

Anastasia Proves a 90s Heroine for the Ages

As a girl born in the 90s, I spent my childhood watching some of the best Disney characters on screen. They proved to be role models that I and many other girls could look up to: female protagonists that were not damsels in distress, but strong women who radiate confidence.

Some favorites include Mulan, Pocahontas and Meg from Hercules. But one occasionally overlooked 90s heroine who is just as fearless as the rest is Anastasia. Perhaps overshadowed in the past, Anastasia now has a leg up on the other Disney ladies with a musical of her very own.

Anastasia the Musical is the Broadway adaptation of the 1997 film and was written by Terrence McNally with a score from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. While first making it to the big stage back in April 2017, the musical is now a month into its U.S. national tour with a DC stop at the Kennedy Center running through November 25. We sat down with Lila Coogan, staring in the titular role, to talk about taking a Broadway show on the road, 90s Disney heroines and what it’s like to play a fierce female role like Anya/Anastasia.

On Tap: You’re at the beginning of a tour that runs until fall of next year. What has the tour been like so far?
Lila Coogan: So far it’s been really fun and crazy. Traveling is always exciting and getting to perform in new venues is a wild experience, especially for me; I’ve never toured before. My body’s adjusting to the touring lifestyle, that’s for sure! But we’re meeting new people every day and learning all the different backstage pathways and it’s just so fun and I’m really enjoying it.

OT: How does it feel to bring a big production like this on the road as opposed to performing it in the same theater every night?
LC: When you’re performing in the same theater every night, one of the biggest differences is actually that you have a space in the theater that is yours. You get one when you’re touring, but it depends. In DC, we’ll be there for a month, so that will get real home-y real quick, but for example, we’re only here [Greenville, South Carolina] for a week, so you’re kind of selective about what you do and don’t unpack. You kind of have to figure out what you need versus what you want [laughs], things like that. And that’s an adjustment, but it’s fun and exciting, and at least you’re never in the same spot every time.

OT: How does changing venues so many times alter the production?
LC: Luckily we use the same actual stage – it’s called a deck and we travel with our deck wherever we go which is really cool. So no matter where we are, we’re on the same stage essentially, which is a comfort for the actors [laughs]. But because the backstage area is so much smaller sometimes, you have to adjust where you’re waiting around for your entrances or how soon you get to the deck before scene, just little things like that.

OT: Anya/Anastasia is such an iconic role, especially for those of us who grew up watching the Disney movie as kids – what has it been like to bring that animated character from a 90s movie to life?
LC: She’s so much fun. I absolutely adored the 1997 film, so she was like my favorite heroine. She was so spunky and sassy and that was me growing up – I was so thrilled to see a girl like that, a princess nonetheless. And when I found out that they were making this a musical I was so, so excited for it. I went to see it right when it opened [on Broadway] and I just loved it and I thought, this is the type of woman I want young girls to see on stage, just kicking butt [laughs].

OT: What are some differences between the film and the musical?
LC: The film is very rooted in fantasy and otherworldliness in a way, like with Rasputin and the talking bat. Our musical has that same quality, but it’s rooted in reality and real people. There’s no underworld-Rasputin villain or talking bats, but you get people who are actually struggling with real-life dilemmas and still having that mystery and adventure behind it – as to whether Anya is the princess Anastasia.

OT: What do you think or hope kids who will see Anastasia will think of this musical and Anya’s character?
LC: I want every person who comes to see this musical to leave feeling like they can do anything they want to do, and that no matter who they are there is a home for them.

OT: Kids these days have a lot more empowering female characters to look up to like Elsa and Anna from Frozen and Moana; this character is from the 90s but she still fits in with these characters that are much newer.
LC: I think the film kind of set the precedent that you don’t have to necessarily be one way to be a princess. I am in no way, shape or form knocking other princesses – I actually think every princess is good for every girl and there’s a princess out there for everyone – but for me, as a rambunctious, spunky, kind of tomboy growing up, seeing her as a princess in the 90s made me think ‘I could be a princess too!’ And I hope that she continues to do that today.

OT: Does the musical use the songs from the movie or are there new ones?
LC: I believe there are 21 songs total, and there’s only like five from the movie that are in the musical, but if you like the music from the movie, you’ll love the music in the musical because it’s the same writing team. And some of the other songs in the movie have been repurposed into the musical.

OT: After DC’s leg of the tour, you have a huge chunk of tour dates left – is there anything or any place you’re especially excited for?
LC: I’m excited to go everywhere honestly [laughs]. DC was actually one [I was excited about]; I always wanted to perform at the Kennedy Center, so to get to do that is an absolute dream come true, and with this show especially. I’m also super excited for San Fran because I have family there so that’ll be great!

Catch Anastasia the Musical at the Kennedy Center, running through November 25. Tickets start at $59. Run time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Learn more about Anastasia the Musical at www.anastasiathemusical.com.

The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo courtesy of Cameron Whitman
Photo courtesy of Cameron Whitman

Big Story, Intimate Setting: Chicago at Keegan Theatre

Pop, six, squish, uh uh, Cicero, Lipschitz! Those six words that are random on their own can be mistaken for non-other than the intro to the seductive “Cell Block Tango” of the infamous musical Chicago. The classic story of passion-induced crime and the lure of fame has made its way to DC at Keegan Theatre until April 14.

For those who may not have seen the musical on stage or the popular 2002 movie, Chicago was written by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Set in the roaring twenties, the musical follows the story of Roxie Hart who has murdered a cheating lover. Her loyal husband Amos takes the blame for Roxie’s crime, but when he finds out she’s been playing him, Roxie is sent to jail. It’s there that she gets the help of crooked lawyer Billy Flynn and battles fellow convict Velma Kelly for the spotlight.

While Chicago has been done many times before and the story stays mostly the same, Keegan’s production will have a more authentic nature to the production. Maria Rizzo, who is playing Roxie, says that while the revival feels very modern with its costuming and the portrayal of the characters, Keegan’s production will feel a lot more like the real twenties.

As Kurt Boehm, who play Billy, puts it, “The revival had a very specific look to it and the dancing is pretty iconic with Fosse’s interpretation, so [we’re] really trying to step back into the time period and go with the vaudeville theme.”

Another element of Keegan’s production that you will not see from many others is intimacy.

“It’s this small space where you can really see so many details of the performer’s emotions and the storyline,” Rizzo says. The set is very spare and it’s just about these characters and the way they’re whittling through the journey that they’re all facing.”

Regardless of whether it’s being performed on a big stage or a small one, a modern interpretation or an authentic one, Chicago has remained a popular musical since it first hit the stage. In addition to the catchy songs and unforgettable choreography, part of its popularity comes from the story’s relevant message to today.

“At the beginning of the show there’s a line that says you’re about to step into a story about greed, betrayal and murder and all of these abrupt and scary things. There’s just so much of that going on in the world,” and it looks at how women are resilient despite these terrible things Rizzo says. “What’s cool about it is it’s not about getting a guy and it’s not about a big, happy ending. It’s about two women and the struggle that is put in front of them and how they fight through it.”

Catch Chicago at Keegan Theatre, running through April 14, 2018. Learn more here.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com