Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, March 2009
The nicest part [of being in hiding] is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings, otherwise I'd absolutely suffocate.
– Anne Frank, March 16, 1944
There is no other word but beautiful for NYSTI’s production of Yours, Anne, under the direction of Michael Philip Davis. I understand that there are people who find it hard to imagine that a musical about eight people forced to live in squalid conditions in tight quarters for two years could be beautiful, but this one is because beauty is not always a physical attribute. It can come from within, and Anne Frank’s diary of her time in hiding from the Nazis found that beauty even as it described despair and anger.
I was taken by surprise to discover that the combination of the three words “Anne Frank musical” would be so appalling to so many people. American musical theatre uses music a heightened form of communication – when emotions run too high for speech then music takes over – and the two years the Frank and Van Pels families and Fritz Pfeffer spent in hiding were fraught with tension and emotion. The word “opera” might to a better job of conveying how composer Michael Cohen uses music in Yours, Anne because opera frequently tells tragic stories and characters have no other medium but music to convey their inner struggles. But Yours, Anne is not an opera, or even an operetta. It is a piece of musical theatre that tells a horrific, and true, story with a gentle humanity and blunt reality.
Librettist Enid Futterman takes many of her lyrics and the incidents described directly from Anne Frank’s writings which cover the period from her 13th birthday, June 12, 1942, when she received her diary as a gift, until the betrayal and arrest of the eight people in hiding in the Secret Annex on August 4, 1944 (The Frank family went into hiding July 5, 1942 and Anne’s last diary entry is dated August 1, 1944.) She uses Anne’s pseudonyms, calling the Van Pels family Hermann, Petronella, and Peter van Daan, and Fritz Pfeffer, Albert Düssell. (Anne and Pfeffer shared a tiny room and did not get along at all, leading her to choose a derogatory pseudonym for him. Düssell translates into “Nitwit,” “Dope,” or worse.)
These eight residents of the Achterhuis or Secret Annex of #263 Prinsengracht in Amsterdam comprise the entire cast of Yours, Anne. In real life, the six people who helped them hide and survive - Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan, and Bep Voskuijl and her father Johannes - were regular visitors, but in this stage world, to heighten the sense of isolation and entrapment, we see only the Franks, the van Daans, and Düssell. And we see them as they appear in her writings, through her teen-aged eyes.
Futterman and Cohen realize that there are seven other stories to be told, and seven actor/singers eager to tell them, and the score contains just enough solo work to allow us glimpses of the souls surrounding Anne.
Shannon Rafferty plays Anne with piercing honesty as she ages from 13 to 15, has her first romance, and deals with going through puberty in such enforced proximity. Rafferty is in her mid-twenties, but she passes physically for a young teen while utilizing the skills and experience of an older actress to carry the show.
Elivia Bovenzi who plays Anne’s older sister, Margot, is a senior at Russell Sage; and Michael Whitney, who plays Peter van Daan, is a senior at Niskayuna High School. Both are NYSTI interns, as Rafferty was once, and Bovenzi made a stellar NYSTI debut as Miss Harriet Pemberton in Orphan Train earlier this year. Here again is irrefutable proof of the quality and value of NYSTI's education and internship programs (Are you listening, Governor Paterson??*)
It is rumored that Margot Frank also kept a diary, which is lost. She was of a very different temperament than Anne, and three years older, and it is a great pity that her authentic voice is lost to us, but Futterman does a good job of fleshing out Margot’s story, and Bovenzi sings sweetly on her second act solo Something to Get Up For.
One can only guess at the feelings of a young man confined as Peter Van Pels/van Daan was. It is no accident that armies typically channel the energy and frustrations of young men in combat situations. Peter knew who his enemy was, but was unable to do anything other than rage at his oppressors. Whitney prowls like a caged animal in his early scenes, and displays genuine anger in his duet I’m Not a Jew as Peter tries to free himself from captivity by denying his roots.
By all accounts the five adults in the Annex were a disparate bunch. Otto (Joel Aroeste) and Edith (Anny DeGange) Frank were reserved while Hermann (John Romeo) and Petronella (Mary Brazeau) van Daan had a volatile relationship. Albert Düssell (David Bunce), a dentist by trade, was a far more observant Jew than the others, but his family relations were unconventional. A divorced man with custody of his son, he had been living with a Catholic woman estranged, but not divorced, from her husband and son before going into hiding. Even if his Lotta had been free to marry, Nazi laws prohibited marriage between Jews and non-Jews.
This fine quintet of actors - all but Brazeau are NYSTI regulars – sing their roles with authority and are directed with minute finesse by Davis, who orginated the role of Peter van Daan in the original production of Yours, Anne. Anne was critical, as only an adolescent can be, of the adults in her world, and we see them act out their struggles as she interpreted them. She was closer to her father than her mother, although she became closer to Edith during their time in hiding, the van Daan’s family structure was different enough from her own that she pitied them, and she openly loathed Düssell. It is a tricky job creating fully-rounded characters from a source that depicts them as caricatures.
The Annex is an ideal place to hide in. It may be damp and lopsided, but there's probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland.
- Anne Frank, July 11, 1942
My colleague Peter Bergmann had an opportunity to visit the Anne Frank House last year, and commented how very small the space was in the Secret Annex. But Anne was also right in her appraisal of it. Few families who went into hiding were able to stay together as the Franks and Van Pelses did. Set designer Robert Klingelhoefer has actually created an open and spacious two-level set (there were two floors in the Annex), into which lighting designer John McLain carves claustrophobic niches. The entire cast is on the stage most of the time, whether or not they are in the light and part of the action, reminding us of the fact that there was no privacy for any of them during their 25 months in hiding.
The reason for [Anne Frank’s] immortality was basically literary. She was an extraordinarily good writer, for any age, and the quality of her work seemed a direct result of a ruthlessly honest disposition.
– Roger Rosenblatt
Most people probably don’t realize that Anne ultimately intended her diary for publication. On March 28, 1944, she heard Dutch Cabinet Minister Gerrit Bolkestein, broadcasting on Radio Oranje (Radio Orange) from London, announce that diaries and other important documents would be gathered after he war ended to preserve a record of what happened to the Dutch during the Nazi occupation, and a few weeks later she began rewriting and editing her diary with an eye towards future publication. Astoundingly, in the two months that she had to work on the project before her arrest, she managed to edit her writings up through March 29,1944.
The next astonishing piece of the story comes the day after the arrest when Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl found Anne’s writings. Gies, who celebrated her 100th birthday this past February, saved them, unread, hoping to return them to Anne after the war. When it became apparent that only Otto Frank had survived, she gave the manuscripts to him and he spent the rest of his life as the custodian of his daughter’s legacy.
Anne symbolizes the six million victims of the Holocaust...Anne's life and death were her own individual fate, an individual fate that happened six million times over. Anne cannot, and should not, stand for the many individuals whom the Nazis robbed of their lives... But her fate helps us grasp the immense loss the world suffered because of the Holocaust. - Miep Gies
Anne’s story is both individual and representative. In this excellent production NYSTI makes it intensely personal and profoundly moving. At the performance I saw, Aroeste had tears streaming down his face during his final lines, where, as the sole survivor, announced the deaths of each of the other Annex residents, and while much of the audience rose in a standing ovation, there were older people in the theatre who could only sit in silence as they recalled their own or their parents' wartime experiences.
There's in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage..."
Anne Frank, May 3, 1944
"...I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
– Anne Frank, July 15, 1944
I end with these two contradictory quotations from late in Anne's diary because she is right on both counts, but it is only the later quote that we routinely hear. Anne wrote about the bad and the good in herself, in her parents, her sister, and the other people she was sequestered with, and about the world at war. These are words that still need to be heard. If there is a young person in your life who hasn't heard them, please take them to see this marvelous production. And if you yourself haven't listened to Anne Frank in a while, go and remember how much we lose every time we let the urge to destroy overcome the goodness in our hearts.
The NYSTI production of Yours, Anne runs March 13-26 in the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children in grade 5 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)
For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
* The future status of the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI) is still not resolved. If you are a New York State resident take a minute to communicate with Governor David Paterson and your local State Senator and Assembly Member that you want them to eliminate Part “B” of S.57/A.157 to stop the proposed merger with The Egg and allow NYSTI to continue its excellent work for families, children, educators, and all people who love the theatre. Heck, write in even if you live in Massachusetts, Vermont, or Connecticut and travel to see NYSTI shows. It can’t hurt!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009