There is no bottom to the oddity of “Anastasia,” the 2017 Broadway musical now opulently filling the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in the early phases of its national tour. The show — big, eye-catching and watchable, as long as you don’t think about it — is based on the 1997 animated kids’ movie that made a dopey fairy tale of the long-held rumor that Anastasia, the youngest Romanov daughter, somehow survived the 1918 slaughter of her family after the Russian Revolution.
That Twentieth Century Fox picture felt like Disney then and still smacks of “Cinderella” and other princess fables. That puts the audience in the weird position of rooting for our determined heroine to be recognized as one of the deposed Romanovs — well, actually, we’re mostly supposed to ignore the reality of that. Instead, sit back and enjoy as Anya, a young nobody who can’t recall her past and gets roped into posing as Anastasia so two schemers can collect a hefty reward from an expat granny in Paris, treks toward the nobility she had inside all along. What could be more familiar?
In fact, if you start tallying obvious influences there’s no telling where you’ll stop. The orphaned, upbeat Anya has a streak of “Annie.” It’s “My Fair Lady” when she gets plucked off the Russian streets by Dmitry and Vlad, who school her in refined deportment so she can pass for a princess. Exiles mournfully fleeing an oppressive Russia evoke “Fiddler on the Roof.” There’s even a communist bureaucrat who stalks Anya across Europe because he is obsessed with obliterating the Romanovs. His stern, righteous arias sound like Javert’s in “Les Miserables.”
As “Anastasia” settles into those established patterns, director Darko Tresnjak’s epic-scaled production embraces the show’s animated roots with crystal-clear digital scenery beamed onto Alexander Dodge’s palatial set. Aaron Rhyne’s cinematic projections give you everything from wispy ghosts to massive postcards of St. Petersburg and Paris, even seeming to rocket Anya and her crew to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Keeping up with the sophisticated imagery, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens expand on the score they wrote for the movie that generated the anthemic hit “Journey to the Past.” The lush orchestral music exudes aristocracy, with lots of waltz tempos evoking imperial ballrooms. Flaherty and Ahrens were writing “Ragtime” as they worked on the movie, and the songs they added for Broadway are sturdily crafted, whether it’s a jaunty travel number that percolates with adventure or an elegant ballet sequence in Paris.
Still, the score is more proficient than passionate. Trapped inside the steel bars of the fairy tale, which doesn’t exactly feel like book writer Terrence McNally’s fault, most of the score feels drawn from well-worn templates for cardboard characters. That’s a far cry from the original musical “The Little Dancer” Flaherty and Ahrens tried out at the Kennedy Center in 2014.
The thoroughly assured Lila Coogan sings Anya’s songs with the clear, bright voice of, you know, a Disney heroine. The performers fall in line with their types: Stephen Brower as Dmitry, the handsome young schemer who falls for Anya; Edward Staudenmayer as his fustian sidekick, Vlad, who gets a long, strangely bawdy second-banana number with Tari Kelly as his paramour Countess Lily; and Joy Franz as the tetchy dowager empress who’s tired of all the poseurs acting as the long-gone Anastasia.
But you can’t take any of it seriously, and this is actually an upgrade over the inanity of the animated film. (The 1956 movie that won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar is also a sort-of source.) Gone is the skeletal villain Rasputin and his magical spells against Anya; instead we have the faceless, joyless communist regime, which makes the deposed dynasty look so romantic that — ah, forget about it. We root for Anya to be Anastasia because princess! Your eyes may like “Anastasia” and your ears may be soothed, but your brain shouldn’t have to take this.
Anastasia, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Costumes, Linda Cho; lights, Donald Holder; sound design, Peter Hylenski; choreography, Peggy Hickey; music director, Lawrence Goldberg. About two and a half hours. Through Nov. 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $48-$175. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.