When you think of topics for musicals, I don't imagine that the Holocaust springs to mind. Other than the over-the-top satire of Mel Brooks' Springtime for Hitler from The Producers, few shows have succeeded at putting the absurdity and atrociousness of World War II to song. Yet that's just what Enid Futterman and Michael Cohen did when they wrote Yours, Anne, a musical originally staged in 1985 and based on the famous diary of Anne Frank.
Music Theatre of Madison and director Meghan Randolph tackle this tricky subject matter in their production of the musical which opened at the Bartell Theatre on Thursday and runs tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2:00 p.m., only.
It's hard not to walk into a sung version of the life (and inevitable death) of Anne Frank without a certain sense of dread. One expects cliché and the kind of sterilized version of events presented in the dramatizations of the story from the 1950s. And while Yours, Anne certainly rubs elbows with the contrived, Futterman (who attended opening night and participated in a talk-back afterward) and Cohen manage to include several honest, fresh-feeling moments during the course of the show.
The problem, however, is that they're only moments and not a cohesive whole. The musical feels like a series of tableaux rather than a connected, dynamic narrative. Lyrically the show relies too heavily on repetition and lists, and character development feels as though it was given very short shrift.
Still, this production manages to bring out some high points. The action, obviously, hinges around the young Anne -- and good casting of that role is crucial. Happily, MTM has found an able actress in Elizabeth Zabit. Her voice, while still a little unpolished, deftly carries the character's many songs while also displaying a great deal of further promise. Zabit also injects the perfect level of charm and rambunctiousness without ever seeming like she's just mugging for the audience.
The standout voice of the cast belongs to Kassy L. Coleman, who plays a quietly stalwart Edith Frank. In one of the shorter, less plot-oriented songs of the show, mother Frank gives a beautifully heartfelt rendition of a German lullaby to a sleeping Anne that threatens to break the listener's heart.
Frankie Pobar-Lay also brings a strong voice and a real sense of teenage frustration to the role of Peter Van Daan, Anne's eventual confidant and romantic interest in the Amsterdam annex where the Franks hid.
Staged in the smaller, darker Evjue stage at the Bartell, the production's technical aspects are minimal but most effective. A lone piano player provides the soundtrack from behind a curtain, accompaniment that is solid if a little too loud for the space.
Ultimately, several of the shortcomings in Yours, Anne are somewhat more the result of the original book and score. While the acting and staging in this production are occasionally a little clunky, the players' dedication to the story and their roles is apparent enough to make for a fairly entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theater.