This weekend, Theatre du Mississippi and the WSU Theatre and Dance department will present "I am Anne Frank," a music-theatre performance produced by Nautilus Music-Theatre (NMT) of St. Paul and starring Winona native Vanessa Muras Gamble.
Photo submitted by Ben Krywosz
Winona native Vanessa Muras Gamble stars in the upcoming music-theater production "I am Anne Frank."
"I am Anne Frank" is based on "The Diary of a Young Girl," Anne Frank's account of living in hiding as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Holland. The piece uses a combination of spoken scenes, music, and singing to tell its story.
Ben Krywosz, Artistic Director of NMT, classifies the work broadly as "music-theater," distinguishing it from opera. The music "comes off as a much more vernacular style," Krywosz said. "It's not nearly as off-putting as operatic music."
"It is operatic in scale and tone," Theatre du Mississippi board member and WSU Theatre professor Peggy Sannerud said of Krywosz's work. "But we often think of operatic singers as not being actors. This is not the case with Nautilus."
When NMT first began production of "I am Anne Frank" two years ago, getting would-be viewers to accept that a musical interpretation could carry the gravity of a story like Anne Frank's was a challenge. However, based on the response of audiences, Krywosz believes they have succeeded. Music-theater works for a story like that of Anne Frank, Sannerud said, because "the music reinforces and amplifies the emotional content."
Minimalistic set design is a trademark of NMT productions. "You can see the staging is very simple, that focus is on the character," said Sannerud. "This is character-driven theater, not even particularly plot-driven because we know Anne Frank; what we're interested in in his piece is the character and that's what the musical format and the spare staging emphasizes."
NMT also breaks the expectation for theater that presents the performance as if the story were literally taking place on stage—a convention known as naturalism. "In terms of staging, we don't try to fool people that this is Anne Frank on stage," Krywosz said. Instead, he refers to his performers as "storytellers" and treats the stage as simply the place where that story is being told. For "I am Anne Frank," that means that Krywosz's "storytellers" directly address the audience, share internal monologues, perform dialogue, and—of course—sing. At times, Gamble's co-star, Joel Leistman, portrays characters from "Diary of a Young Girl." At other times he is a silent observer, and still other times acts as himself. For NMT, the focus is on "emotional realism" rather than "theatrical naturalism," Krywosz explained. "Our performers act out, they sing, they describe, they do whatever is necessary to tell the story."
When Krywosz was first introduced to "I am Anne Frank," he immediately thought of Vanessa Muras Gamble. Gamble, who graduated from WSHS in '91 and has worked for 17 years as a professional performer, had worked with Krywosz on numerous projects. Krywosz knew that as a performer Gamble would "bring the piece to life" because he thought the story aligned well with her value system. "And on a pragmatic level Vanessa looks much younger than she is," he laughed.
Gamble was smitten with the music of the piece as soon as she heard it. "It's so well-written, acceptable, and down-to-earth," she said. She agrees with Krywosz that the story appealed to her world-view, and that the message of the story is deeply meaningful for her. "One of the most fascinating things for me is how moments of redemption emerge in such darkness," she said. "You hear stories like the Connecticut shooting and you think, 'how can it get any darker?' and yet you find these stories of incredible beauty right in the middle of that darkness."
Gamble said she looks forward to delivering one line in particular: " I believe that these wars will end and that we will find peace again." "That's such a sweet moment," Gamble said. "Every night I'm really saying that to the people. I believe that we're going to get through all these wars that are happening right now, in our neighborhoods, in our countries, in humanity. We're going to find peace again; don't lose hope."
The last time Gamble performed in Winona was nearly 10 years ago at a reunion concert of former WSHS choir director Bruce Ramsdell's students. During her high school years and into college, Gamble was a regular performer at local theaters. "I did a lot of shows at all the community theaters," she laughed.
"It's great! I'm excited," Gamble said of coming back to Winona for this performance. "When you have such deep roots in a place, it's great to come home."
Theatre du Mississippi presented NMT's production of "Joan of Arc" last January. Both Krywosz and Sannerud expressed that NMT and Theatre du Mississippi hope to have a long-term relationship based on sharing new work with the Winona area.
"I am Anne Frank" will be performed on Thursday, January 3, through Saturday, January 5, at 7:30 p.m. each night and again on Sunday, January 6, at 3:00 p.m. at the Dorothy B. Magnus Open Stage Theatre in the WSU Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students and seniors. Online ticketing is available at anne.brownpapertickets.com.