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Last Updated: Friday, 22 February 2008, 18:22 GMT
Anne Frank given musical makeover
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Madrid

Isabella Castillo as Anne Frank
Cuban-born tennager Isabella Castillo plays the lead role

A controversial new musical telling the life story of Anne Frank opens in Madrid later this month.

The producers call it an educational and sensitive portrayal of Anne's two years in hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

But her only living relative says showbusiness is profiting from the Holocaust.

Anne's cousin Buddy Elias, now 82, has called her a "fun-loving girl with a tremendous imagination".

Watching Anne Frank: A Song to Life, I soon found myself wondering whether the teenage heroine's sense of fun would extend to this much-hyped and occasionally kitsch new show.

Would Anne enjoy seeing herself standing on a revolving stage under neon lights and twinkling stars, with eyes closed and arms outstretched, Titanic-style, while belting out a power ballad about flying like a seagull to freedom?

And would she relish a bizarre fantasy sequence, in which her character peeks in, Cinderella-like, on a gala ball of menacing Nazis in carnival masks?

Ambitious touches

My bet is that this show will be a huge box office draw in Spain.

The audience lapped up the eclectic mix of musical styles - from Latin rhythms to Jewish folk melodies and the guitar rock beloved of Spaniards in the 1980s.

The cast of Anne Frank: A Song to Life perform
The show puts the famous story to music

There are ambitious artistic touches, notably a projected animation of mountains and valleys, which appears behind Anne during a duet with her boyfriend Peter.

The producers have steered completely clear of dance routines, and chosen not to portray the concentration camp where Anne died of typhus in the early months of 1945.

What will sell this show is its 13-year-old Cuban-born star Isabella Castillo, who shows great maturity and energy in the title role, portraying Anne Frank as sensitive and imaginative, but also as an essentially normal teenage girl.

She gawps at boys, rows with her mother and whispers excitedly to her sister about getting her first period.

The diary, which went on to become a historical treasure and sell 40 million copies, was often referred to by Anne as "Kitty". Here, Kitty is given a human face, in the form of an on-stage alter-ego played by Basque actress Patricia Arizmendi.

Meanest thug

As a production device, it helps - we witness Anne's private hopes and fears, rants and desires. But again, if Anne Frank were to see this production, she might reasonably ask: "Who dressed Kitty?"

The human diary first appears in a red chiffon dress with a fat sequinned belt and big hair - much like Wonder Woman going to a black-tie event. In the second act, Kitty loses the plot altogether, appearing to confuse herself with Audrey Hepburn.

And then there are the Nazis. Imagine the loudest, meanest, jackbooted thug that you have ever seen in a war film, and then have him sing in a belligerent baritone as he enters from stage-left amid cascades of dry ice and moody blue lighting.

Anne Frank
Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945

It seems a little over-the-top, that is until another Nazi appears together with a German Shepherd.

The thespian canine showed immense composure as, during the Franks' betrayal and arrest, the Kommandant shouted and the strobe-lights flickered fiercely.

The dog eventually started whimpering, as if he instinctively knew he was on the wrong side. As he exited with his handler, the Spanish audience applauded.

Ahead of the production, Buddy Elias, who refused to come to Madrid to see it, said: "Anne and millions of Jews died during the Holocaust - her story wasn't made for a lovely evening at the theatre."

But to the Madrid crowd that stood and applauded this performance, that's exactly what it was.

They loved this production, and so too will many others. But Buddy, who told me he feared the show would be "too kitsch," should probably follow his instincts and stay at home.

Scenes from Anne Frank musical

Anne Frank story musical to open
07 Jan 08 |  Entertainment
In pictures: Anne Frank family papers
15 Feb 07 |  In Pictures

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