Minneapolis Musical Theatre
In the fine tradition of Little Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Show and a slew of other horror/science-fiction-film-inspired retro rock musicals comes Zombie Prom, a lightweight-if-still-fun romp currently getting its Twin Cities premiere from the Minneapolis Musical Theatre.
The book by John Dempsey hasn't got much meat, but there are some nice moments, while the songs (crafted by lyricist Dempsey and composer Dana P. Rowe) have a nice ear for the 1950s era of the show. At their best, the songs are bouncy, fun and packed with humor. And at their worst they're simply inoffensive. A strong MMT cast helps transcend the material, as does clever staging and set design.
We follow the students at Enrico Fermi High School. It is the tail end of the 1950s. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction are ever present, but for the seniors, it's all about doing well in the science fair and finding a boy or girlfriend. Transfer student Jonny throws a wrench into the proceedings. So much a rebel that he removed the "H" from his name, Jonny quickly falls for Toffee. This doesn't sit well with anyone, from Toffee's parents to the school's principal, Delilah Strict. Forced apart, Jonny races to the nearby nuclear plant and commits suicide.
It would be just another tragic story of teens torn apart, except that – either through Toffee's love or the nuclear waste he is buried with – Jonny comes back from the dead, now as a decaying, green-skinned zombie. And quicker than you can say West Side Story, Jonny and Toffee are defying their elders and trying to find a way to be together again (in a subplot, Jonny also wants to finish high school, which the, er, strict Ms. Strict does not want him to do).
As you may guess, it all turns out well. And a big twist in the plot is telegraphed at the end of the first act, leaving little tension in its wake. Instead, the show lives off its energetic cast and clever songs.
Shaun Nathan Baer makes a great Jonny, both as teen and green rebel. I would have liked to see a more shambling performance (especially as the weeks pass and Jonny becomes more of a stiff), but his voice is excellent throughout. Emily Brooke Hansen brings the right innocent tone to Toffee, which gives her character a chance to grow a bit through the show. The balance of the cast is solid as well, especially Kim Kivens' terrific turn as Miss Strict and Thomas Karki's slightly sleazy reporter, Eddie Flagrante.
Jay Schuller's set is quite clever, evoking the era's high school scene and nuclear paranoia in equal turns. Director Steven Meerdink and music director Kevin Hansen deal with the material with a light hand, accenting the goofy vibe at every turn. It's a good choice, since the plot – even by '50s B-grade films (and musical versions of '50s B-grade films) – is pretty weak. Zombie Prom isn't a great show by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a fun diversion, which citizens of a snow-bound Twin Cities could use right about now.
Zombie Prom runs through March 25 at Hennepin Stages, 824 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, visit www.aboutmmt.org.