Regional Reviews: Boston
Do not be confused by the title. This musical fairy tale is not based on the 1980s Olivia Newton John movie Xanadu. However, author Tim Acito did purposely reference the film in his title because he hoped to emulate its feeling of sweetness and magic. Like Olivia Newton Johns' character in Xanadu, who was a mystical muse sent to Earth to inspire men, the leading character of Zanna, Don't! is a magical matchmaking teen named Zanna. With the help of his magic wand, Zanna tends to the hearts and lives of all around him in this story based on a humorous and hopeful message of tolerance.
Welcome to Heartsville High, set in an upside-down world where everyone is gay. At Heartsville High the big-man-on-campus is the school chess champion, and the captain of the football team is made cool by being cast as the lead in the school musical. The students decide to stir things up by writing and performing a controversial original school musical called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" about straight people in the military. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" becomes the catalyst for a young man and woman in the cast to fall in love with each other. They must then face the the painful task of "coming out" to themselves and to the world as heterosexuals.
The musical style and feel of this show lies somewhere between High School Musical and Rent. The legitimacy of the subject matter has been given the handling of an after-school special, perhaps to take the edge off of what might be perceived as confrontational. The presentational style of the characters and their conflicts, and the song lyrics and music are what one would expect to hear on The Disney Channel in an alternate universe. There is plenty of humor in reversed stereotypes and plays on situations. There are also inside jokes for the musical theatre devotees. One would wish that we are told how Zanna comes to be the only person in Heartsville with magical powers, but after all this is a fairy tale.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company has a four-piece live band, playful costuming, and colorful set and lighting for its production of Zanna, Don't!. The choreography by David Connolly is functional but not memorable. The dancing is somewhat limited to staging during full cast moments due to the size of the stage.
The cast members, many of whom are students at Boston Conservatory, refreshingly look young enough to actually be in high school. There are no weak links vocally, though some perform with more polish than others. Jordan Fife Hunt as Zanna achieves a genderlessly fey quality that suits the role. His challenge in this show is to find layers to his character that may not be clearly written. Jaime Cepero III, who plays Mike, has a strong stage presence and a smooth singing voice. Anich D'Jae and Stephanie Umoh provide a touch of soul and humor. And DJ Petrosino does a nice job slipping in and out of three different characters throughout the show.
Though the message of Zanna, Don't! is valuable, the show itself is entertaining but unsubstantial. To the author's credit, it avoids being preachy or political. In a desire to be palatable, however, it may seem watered down. With an eye and ear to current musical trends, Acito has succumbed to a pop style that is melodically forgettable. His and the cast's finest moment is a beautifully written and sung quartet titled "Do You Know What It's Like?". Here, the lyrics are touching and insightful, and the music clean and smart. If the entire show were written more like this song, Zanna, Don't! would be transformed from frothy to stunning.
Author Acito thinks of his whimsical world of Zanna, Don't! as "a childhood experience that no gay person ever gets to have." "I started questioning the deeper ramifications that lead to isolation, self-doubt and self-hatred," Acito says. "Any time any one group is made to feel that way, I think it not only harms that group, it snowballs into harming others as well." According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted on behalf of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network entitled "From Teasing to Torment," 90% of lesbian, gay or bisexual teens report having been harassed or assaulted in the past year as compared to 62% of non-LGBT students.
Zanna, Don't! - A Musical Fairy Tale will be appearing through October 13, 2007 at the SpeakEasy Stage Company. The show will be performed in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. The Center for the Arts is located at 527 Tremont Street in Boston, MA. The SpeakEasy Stage Company is a professional, non-profit Resident Theatre Company hiring local Equity and nonunion performers. For tickets and information you may contact them by phone at 617-482-3279, or at email@example.com.
* Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
**Designates member of United Scenic Artists -Local USA - 829
Guest review by John Lariviere