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Review: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's Theatre

Ernie Nolan Directs Nashville Stage Veterans and Newcomers in Superb New Production

Review: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's Theatre
Shelby Talbert in The Diary of Anne Frank at Nashville Children's Theatre.
- photos by Michael Scott Evans

For 75 years, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, has captivated audiences everywhere with the writer's optimistic view of the world providing a legacy of hope that has allowed all of us to honor every life cut short by what is quite possibly the most horrific event in human history.

Wendy Kesselman's new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank - which is based upon the acclaimed 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and is an update of her 1997 script which has been widely produced since - is given a superb world premiere production by Nashville Children's Theatre, which adds luster to the original work and makes it more accessible to contemporary audiences in director Ernie Nolan's new iteration onstage through October 2.

Kesselman's new adaptation creates a deeper, more resonant portrait of Anne Frank - the petulant young German-born girl, who was forced into hiding with her parents, sister and four others hoping to escape the round-up of Jews living in The Netherlands by the occupying Nazis and their local henchmen - which affords the now-iconic figure more authenticity by portraying her as she actually was, rather than as the epic heroine she has become since the discovery of her diary in the aftermath of World War II.

Review: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's Theatre
Megan Murphy Chambers

The Anne Frank of this brilliantly staged NCT production is a more typical pre-teen girl of her era, eager to encounter what her future might hold, sometimes flippant with friends and family, flirtatious with boys and girls, and overly certain of herself. But Kesselman's script lets audiences to see past the bravado and pretense, to glimpse an Anne Frank whose future promise was snuffed out far too soon in a world gone quite mad, thanks to the quest for world domination by a fiendish dictator bent on making all of Europe succumb to his machinations, which include efforts to exterminate every Jew.

The play is based on the young girl's diary, thus painting a picture of who she really was and the conflict she endured in that confined and stultifying space that provided her family a hiding place: the "secret annex" that was found behind a bookcase in her father's Amsterdam business. As Anne matured into a young woman, her diary, which was written in the book gifted her by her father upon the family's self-imposed incarceration in 1942 (as well as in two notebooks that she used after running out of space in the diary), provided her with a safe space - a haven, if you will - in which she could record her deepest and most provocative thoughts from the prying eyes of those around her.

There are, in fact, at least three editions of Anne Franks's diary: the original tome was actually re-written by Anne herself in 1944 after she heard on a radio broadcast that war-time diaries would eventually be gathered together to provide documentation of the experiences of people during the era; and Otto Frank, her father, later edited the book after the war after he was convinced it should be published, in order to share his daughter's story with the world.

The diary had been given to Otto upon his arrival in Amsterdam following a long and arduous journey from Poland after the concentration camps had been liberated (he was the only one among the secret annex's eight to survive) - the diary given to him by one of the family's protectors, who had found it after the residents of the secret annex were arrested - and he removed some passages in order to honor the memories of those about whom Anne had written, as well as to protect her own privacy. The rediscovery of those missing diary entries provide much that informs this new adaptation which makes Anne Frank somehow seem more current and relevant in the 21st century.

Review: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's Theatre
The cast of The Diary of Anne Frank

The new production now onstage at Nashville Children's Theatre follows a brisk pace, with judicious editing of the original play bringing the time onstage to just over an hour with no intermission. There are no essential or fundamental parts of the story left out, and the story of the Franks, the van Daams and Mr. Dussel is as engaging and heartrending as any version one might remember from an earlier encounter.

The sheer theatricality of Nolan's sublime production, however, ensures that audience members leave the theater once again horrified by the realities of the world in which these venerated characters lived (new information about Otto Frank's efforts to secure visas for his family to emigrate to America - included in the new Ken Burns documentary The U.S. and The Holocaust for PBS - provides a startling and emotional counterpoint to the tale told onstage) by including visuals that are certain to be seared into one's memory: a Nazi solider sings some jingoistic tune in German at the top of the show and then there is the specter of jack-booted Nazis marching into the secret annex which foretells the fate of all those with whom we have come to identify in the intervening hour. The impact is chilling, and the revulsion and abject fear felt by those onstage is palpable, if not explicitly felt in the audience.

Kesselman's script is refreshingly forthright, it seems, and while she clearly pays tribute to these heroic characters throughout the play, she somehow manages to present them as believable, approachable and relatable people. Clearly, she respect this story, but perhaps most tellingly, she also respects her audience by being honest and frank.

Review: World Premiere of New DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adaptation at Nashville Children's Theatre
Gerold Oliver and Tamiko Robinson Steele

Credit must be given to Nolan for his impeccable casting of The Diary of Anne Frank, which brings together a cast of respected stage veterans along with several actors making their NCT debuts. Matthew Carlton and Megan Murphy Chambers, two of local theater's most beloved performers, are ideally cast as Otto and Edith Frank, and Shelby Talbert and Charlotte Myhre Shealy (both making their NCT debuts) are wonderful as Anne and Margot, with Talbert particularly skillful in showing the full range of her character's emotional growth in the more than two years of confinement conveyed in the play. Equally compelling is the casting of Tamiko Robinson Steele, Kennie Dozier and Gerold Oliver as the van Daam family; not only are the three as accomplished and revered as their counterparts who play the Franks, but the fact that they are African-American underscores the timelessness of this story, perhaps reminding each audience member of the ever-present polarization in America, and the slippery slope of world history.

Garris Wimmer, who earlier this season played one of the heroic Dutchmen who died while helping Jews hide from the Nazis in the stellar production of A.S. Peterson's The Hiding Place from Rabbit Room Theatre and Matt Logan Productions, is in fine form as Mr. Dussell, the dentist who joins the two families in hiding, and delivers a memorable performance in the process. Sejal Mehta and James Rudolph II, as Miep and Mr. Kraler (the two "protectors" of those in hiding), deliver nuanced performances that make their scant time onstage more effective. Finally, Alaina Bozarth and Dylan Pearsons complete the cast as members of the ensemble.

Scott Leathers' evocative lighting design and scenic design provide the perfect setting for the time-honored tale and he makes grand use of a revolving stage apparatus that ensures seamless transitions. Tommy Macon's costumes clothe the actors with period-perfect choices, and David Wright's sound design perfectly augments the onstage action and allows every word to be heard.

The Diary of Anne Frank. By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. A New Version by Wendy Kesselman, from her original adaptation. A World Premiere Production. Directed by Ernie Nolan. Stage managed by Hannah Boner and Abby Locke Austin. Presented by Nashville Children's Theatre. Through October 2. For futher details and for ticket information, got to Running time: 70 minutes (with no intermission).

photos by Michael Scott Evans

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From This Author - Jeffrey Ellis

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