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Return to the annex 

After seeing Anne Frank's famed Secret Annex in Amsterdam -- and reading numerous newspaper accounts of the perils facing Anna's consoling chestnut tree -- I found myself returning to The Diary of Anne Frank with a refreshed perspective. I didn't need the current Theatre Charlotte production to accurately show me the living quarters where the Franks and the Van Daans huddled in fear of the Nazi Holocaust machine. All I needed to see was the psychology.

Under the direction of Ron Law, TC's executive director, cast and designers are impressively dedicated to that task, filling some mighty big shoes as they do. The Children's Theatre production of 1996, directed by Scott Miller, turned the old lobby on Morehead Street into a mini concentration camp, complete with barbed wire, authentically uniformed jackboots and the sound of fierce guard dogs. In a memorable multimedia pre-show, the audience was processed through that ersatz Auschwitz before they were admitted into the theater.

In any other year, Miller and that Anne Frank would have snagged our Best Director and Best Drama awards. But of course, that was the year of Angels in America, and both were upstaged.

You don't have to weather any similar assault this time when you enter the lobby at the Queens Road barn, but once I settled into my seat, I found some features of this production better than the Children's Theatre version or the 2002 production at Davidson College.

For one thing, the venue is more suitable than the low, wide pancake at Morehead and the vast cavernous stage in Davidson. (Incidentally, Go 'Cats!) Joe Gardner's set for that campus effort was a masterwork, the only college design ever to win a Loaf Theater Award. But I adore how Chris Timmons' set captures the claustrophobic conditions of the enforced seclusion upon the two Jewish families. At the same time, the two-story design offers Anne and Peter their window on the sky.

One other plus: The Jews' protectors climb up the stairs to the annex from the front of the stage after walking through the middle of the audience. Ultimately, the Nazis walk down that same aisle, briefly among us.

Until then, the claustrophobic conditions really do count. Watch the contrasting reactions to those conditions by Julia Grigg as Anne and Alex Brightwell as Peter when they first inhabit this space. Grigg is bright and blithe, frolicking around the annex as if it weren't constricted at all, knocking into people, knocking things over and causing havoc as a result. Brightwell's body language, on the other hand, is sullen and shy at first, wrapped so tightly that he seems to want to take up as little space as possible. It's the antithesis of the affable, wisecracking performance he offered us a year ago as Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs.

As time passes, Grigg becomes more restrained and refined while Brightwell opens up and relaxes. These are wonderful visual cues as Anne and Peter bridge their differences and, while naturally maturing as individuals, come together as a couple. Better than any other production I've seen, this one captures the humor, the excitement and the tension as the budding Anne walks past the gauntlet of the two families to keep her rendezvous with Peter upstairs.

Grigg, Brightwell and Emily Johnson as Anne's elder sister Margot are nearly on par with their Davidson counterparts. More startling, the adults in this community theater cast are every bit as good as the pros who performed onstage at Children's Theatre.

If Dave Blamy smooths over the continental sounds and traits of Otto Frank, he more than makes up for it by capturing his indulgence, his wisdom and his natural leadership. Caroline Granger comes perilously close, as his wife Edith, to being too starchy, selfish and neurotic to be a credible mate, yet I sensed a saving softness at her core.

For most of the evening, Frank Dominguez and Jorja Ursin as the Van Daans have little of the chemistry you'd expect from husband and wife. That turns out to be a fairly shrewd read when Petronella finally shows some tenderness toward her man -- after he's caught stealing food. I'm not quite so satisfied with the mostly dour Dussel we get from Robert Haulbrook, but the change that has transformed the fastidious dentist is largely a byproduct of Wendy Kesselman's 1997 adaptation of the original Albert Hackett/Frances Goodrich stage piece, already 42 years old back then.

More positive is the enrichment of Jewish ritual observance in this revamped Diary. Seeing the guys in their talitot for the heartwarming Hannukah candlelighting is refreshing, and aside from the Hebrew blessings, Law has the Frank sisters sing "Ma'oz Tsur," the traditional "Rock of Ages" holiday anthem -- with nearly perfect pronunciation. The staged ritual conflates Sabbath and Hannukah practices, but that's showbiz -- and an important affirmation.

After way too long an absence, Defoy Glenn and his GM Productions are back on the scene. As evidenced by the full house at Booth Playhouse last Friday -- replicating the support we've seen recently for On Q Productions -- the time is right. So was the onstage talent in the world premiere of Dawn Hilton's A Month of Sundays: Remembering Women in Jazz.

Ten months after her local directorial debut at CAST in Topdog/Underdog, Aisha Dew proves to be a capable leading lady. She portrays Nadia Valentine, a real estate agent who suddenly inherits some prime Manhattan property -- on the condition that she restores it to house a legendary jazz club, The Cellar. Out of nowhere, she discovers that her family is part of a rich jazz history, responsible for birthing the careers of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn.

Max Highsmith makes an auspicious debut as the executor of the estate, Alan Colemon, who fancies Nadia and sells her on the idea of restoring the fabled club. We also see old pros Nick Lewis as the ancestral JW Valentine, who hosted the "Month of Sundays" talent contests at The Cellar, and Ruth Sloane as Sandra Valentine, who briefly shone there as a jazz diva.

While Hilton's plot is more than intriguing enough for a first-time playwright, her lack of immersion in jazz history -- and her failure to integrate it into her storyline -- cruelly exposes her amateurishness. Remembering Women in Jazz becomes a rather pathetic misnomer here, both dramatically and factually. Aside from talking to her Memaw Sandra at an old age home, Nadia is never really exposed to the jazz diva heritage, let alone inspired by it. Hilton neglects to have her protagonist listen and learn along with us.

Instead of illuminating the history of the music, she misrepresents it. Convenient as it might be to say that Sandra wrote the lyrics to Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather," the fact is Ted Koehler was sitting by the composer's side when he wrote them. We don't mind suspending disbelief -- but we'd rather hold onto our knowledge. I suspect the tight piano trio onstage could have enriched Hilton's erudition and tidied up the characterizations of the singers.

It's a mess, to be sure. Four women represent the pantheon, interrupting the action but only connecting to it at the beginning and end of the evening. When a catastrophic fire strikes Nadia's property, throwing the reopening of The Cellar into doubt, it's just an instant after Nadia is wailing "This can't be happening!" that Renee Ebalaroza comes onstage and sings Gershwin's "Summertime." Doubly incongruous because the song is closely identified with Billie Holiday, portrayed just minutes earlier -- with the signature gardenia in her hair -- by Zohnia Richardson singing "God Bless the Child."

Hilton is at her dramatic, imaginative best when she has JW appear to the comatose Sandra while Alan and Nadia are standing their vigil by her bedside. But GM Productions lighting designer Sam Guine was asleep at the switch in the concluding scene, where JW appears in the doorway of The Cellar on opening night, silently fulfilled and presumably blessing the event. Spotlight, please?

A flown-down window frame expedited the scene changes to Sandra's bed, but scenic designer Ashley Hawkins and the GM stage crew needed to be far more resourceful in keeping the flow moving at a brisk pace. Slow scene transitions only accentuated the painfully slow development of the script.

None of these shortcomings seemed to dampen the interest or enthusiasm of the crowd. Plenty of positive things were in place at the Booth for GM to build on. It's great to have them back and see the welcome Charlotte is giving to their talent and potential.

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