For all the press debate about the moral suitability of turning the story of Holocaust victim Anne Frank into a musical, “The Diary of Anne Frank: A Song to Life,” is surprisingly anodyne. Seemingly designed to silence any protests and appeal to all ages, this thoroughly playsafe, highly polished product tells its tragic, familiar tale with minimal fuss and great respect. Though occasionally engaging, fresh and warm, the result — unlike its source material — only intermittently delivers any authentic emotional punch. But as a low-horror, slightly saccharine way to teach younger auds about the darker side of history, it’s first-rate.
The play opens with brief recollections of Anne (Isabella Castillo) from Holocaust victims, before setting off into what is essentially a lengthy flashback. This begins with Anne’s 13th birthday, and her receipt of the diary she’s always wanted; the sense of a lively Jewish community about to be broken up is nicely conveyed, with one early song banging out a message about the importance of roots.
We also meet Kitty (Patricia Arizmendi), the diary given human form — a device which allows us to hear Anne’s daily entries as she writes them.
Along with her father (Alberto Vazquez), mother (Silvia de Esteban) and sister (Rocio Leon), Anne moves into a small, secret annex of an Amsterdam house while the city’s Jews are being rounded up for deportation. One of many refs to the real story has them layering all their clothes when they go into hiding to avoid being seen carrying suitcases and alerting the Nazis.
They are soon joined by the Van Daans — timid father (Juan Carlos Barona), brassy, theatrical mother (Marta Valverde) and son Peter (Paris). In a rare lapse in taste for the show, Mrs. Van Daan delivers a schmaltzy cabaret type number as she strips off her layers of clothing.
One problem to be negotiated is that very little actually happens in the confined space of the hideaway, with the script working hard to generate dramatic mileage out of sometimes trivial events. The general impression is of people under duress trying to maintain the normal routines of everyday life. Occasionally, Anne’s diary entries touch on areas of darkness (“Why is man so cruel to man?”), which the main drama seems unwilling to negotiate.
In the second act, Anne starts to fall for Peter, while new arrival Mr. Kleiman (Andres Navarro) lends a hand to Mrs. Van Daan on the comic relief front. Much time is devoted to Anne’s period, and the effect of hearing such issues addressed in song is mildly disconcerting; the aim is presumably to emphasize the cruelty of cutting short a life in full bloom.
Castillo delivers an impassioned farewell song, followed by the entire cast singing a rousing piece called “Never Again”: What might seem preachy in a less urgent context here feels thoroughly justified.
Perfs are fine, with thesps generally teasing the nuance out of stereotypically written roles. Debutante Castillo, who was cast following an online vote, is a real discovery, expressive, lively and upbeat, with a voice of superb power and range. (The 13-year-old Cuban thesp alternates with Leon in the title role.)
The only real letdown of the otherwise vocally capable cast is Arizmendi as Kitty, who sings inadequately and looks uncomfortable in her abstract role (dressed in some oddly kitsch costumes, presumably the kinds of things Anne would like to be wearing).
The songs, though neatly arranged, are efficient rather than inspiring, with a tendency toward pleasant but unsubtle Europop designed to chime with younger sensibilities. Several numbers outstay their welcome, such as when Anne sings at great length of how she hates Sundays. The songs are often upbeat, but never excessively so.
The staging is simple but effective, with a multi-purpose two-level, open-fronted cube serving as the family’s hideout. Panels on either side of the stage are intelligently used to project digital images — bombs falling, concentration camps — to flesh out context and lend visual depth. Real dogs are used in the production, which caused problems at the performance reviewed.
Lighting becomes increasingly somber as the story darkens, while costume design is respectful of historical detail, right down to the pinned-on Stars of David.