'Anne Frank' and onstage redemption

Criticism

I was happy to learn of the return of I am Anne Frank to the Twin Cities, after a tour of the hinterlands (Bemidji, Duluth, Plainview, Big Fork and Winona). Nautilus Music Theater’s one-act “music-drama” by Enid Futterman and Michael Cohen is drawn from Frank’s famous Diary of a Young Girl, one of the most widely read books in all of literature. After seeing this several years ago at Intermedia Arts, I wanted to see how the production had matured.

Good news. It holds up.

Unlike the well-known movie and play based on the same story, this musical is almost a one-person show. Vanessa Gamble carries the ball for most of the hour, and the experience we get is of Anne with her diary (nicknamed Kitty, so that Anne can pretend she is writing to and confiding in a friend). I am Anne Frank dispenses with the rest of the narrative and almost the entire supporting cast. Joel Listman is the only other actor, playing a bit of counterpoint as Peter, the other teen in the attic. Their voices are an unusually well-matched blend. He is the supporting presence when Anne goes off on her verbal excursions. The movie and play spell out the stories of the hideout in which Anne and her family and friends are huddled, but this show strips all that away so that we have a more personal projection of Anne’s flights of inspiration, escape and deeply personal insight.

I asked Vanessa Gamble (via email) about her ongoing relationship with the role. “I love Anne Frank. She is spunky, bratty, verbose, insightful, complex, and layered,” she says. “I think the idea of redemption in the dark moments of life is miraculous. Every time. We need to tell each other these stories because they keep hope in our hearts. They challenge us and demand us to live better lives. They call on us to grab hands with each other and walk together through the muck.”

“I am a mother of three young children,” Gamble continues. “Honestly, I have no time for bad scripts, poorly written music or fluffy entertainment for the sake of work. If I am not with my family or writing/producing new redemptive work, I want to be working in the Twin Cities theater community with the other theater artists that I love, doing works that matter, telling each other important stories and possibly inspiring someone's faith to rise.”

The attempt to put this narrative across in music could be dangerous. It’s a very tricky world, bringing a score to such a serious and well-known story. Very binary. Either zero or one, yes or no. Well, this is one, this is yes. Singing brings out the soul, and this score gives us a fully realized human, this young wise person bringing her imagination to bear in order to escape the hideout.

Director Ben Krywosz returns to the classical proscenium of the Southern Theater and plunks his portable road-setting in the middle of the floor, towards the audience. The bare set enforces the sense of claustrophobia that Anne and the gang endured. In fact, some may say the Nautilus production is too stripped down, or that it’s hard to get a feel for the whole story without more of the other characters. My own experience is that this is a vital exploration of Anne herself, of the joyous victory she won over her surroundings, and her circumstance. She is liberated by finding the transporting aspect of losing yourself in your own imagination. The singing brings out the heart of the woman-child, the growing-up girl, as she turns a corner from curious intellect to soulful wisdom. Her touching, prescient and deeply powerful insights are poignantly portrayed.

I am only left with one personal piece of heartache: that she ends her diary thinking that people are basically good. Did she still think that at Bergen-Belsen?

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