Football star Steve (Stephen Foreman, left) meets the fabulously gay student body of Heartsville High in the musical Zanna, Don’t at the New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photos by Lois Tema
Magic, show tunes, teenagers whip up mighty spell in `Zanna’
Clever, colorful, tuneful and sweet – that’s Zanna, Don’t! in a nutshell.
You’ve heard of Xanadu, well now meet it’s more engaging, gayer cousin. Zanna, Don’t! was an off-Broadway hit five years ago and finally makes its Bay Area premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in a delightful production full of appealing young actors under the astute direction of F. Allen Sawyer.
In the movie (and later Broadway musical) Xanadu, a roller-skating light bulb, er, goddess named Kira came to Earth to help a befuddled artist find his inspiration and dance with Gene Kelly. In Tim Acito’s musical, a Midwestern fairy (in every sense of the word)in a small town called Heartsville, makes it his business to ensure that all of the town’s same-sex couples are happy and on the brightly colored path to love. (Kuo-Hao Lo’s set is part comic book, part Oz, part candy store.)
In this topsy-turvy world, you see, gay is the rule. All couples are same sex, and if you’re straight, you are forced to be in the closet. At Heartsville High, the upside-down logic continues. Athletic heroes are nothing compared to chess heroes, guys spend time with guys doing “regular guy stuff” like making brownies, and it’s a matter of course that the captain of the football team will be in the school musical.
It’s that darn musical that ends up causing so much upset in Heartsville. The drama kids want to get political this year, so they write an original show about allowing straights in the military. And wouldn’t you just know it? The two actors playing the straight couple, Kate (Katrina McGraw) and Steve (Stephen Foreman), actually fall in love.
Hetero love in Heartsville? Scandal!
Even Zanna (the adorable Price Adam Troche Jr., right) and his trusty wand can’t help without changing the course of history.
Of course there’s a happy ending (this is a chipper musical, after all), but that ending is the least satisfying aspect of Acito’s thoroughly charming show. Some magic happens, a shift occurs, a song is sung, and everything turns out OK. Using musical theater logic, that’s not such a bad sequence of events, but Zanna has been so much cuter and sharper than that through most of its two-plus hours.
Acito is clearly a musical theater fan – he references everything from Grease to Kiss Me Kate to Anyone Can Whistle to Jesus Christ Superstar – and he traffics in upended musical theater clichés to terrific effect in this flittery fairy tale.
The score, which benefits from the excellent musical direction and nimble playing of G. Scott Lacy, is bright, catchy and irresistible. There are country numbers, musical theater spoofs, energetic dance numbers and some surprisingly effective ballads.
One such ballad, “I Could Write Books,” is the emotional opposite of Rodgers and Hart’s chipper “I Could Write a Book.” It is sung by Mike (Timitcio Artusio), who suspects something is up with his quarterback boyfriend:
“I could write books
‘bout all the things you don’t know about me,
page after page of all the things you didn’t say.
I could write books
‘bout all the things you didn’t do,
And then write twice as much
about how much I still love you.”
The youthful ensemble, which also includes Brian J. Patterson, Rodney Earl Jackson, Miquela Sierra and Cindy Im, is tremendously appealing. They execute Stephanie Temple’s bouncy choreography with zest. There are some volume problems here and there (the singers do not use microphones), but on the whole, the cast sounds good, and they’re cute as can be in Jeffrey Lalonde’s perky costumes.
Like most good fairy tales, Zanna, Don’t! is frothy on top and shot through with some fairly serious issues underneath. Though never overtly mentioned, upset over the recent election hovers over the story, and though Zanna and his pals find their fairy tale ending with diversity, respect and love, the real world outside of Heartsville is desperately in need of some magic … and show tunes!
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Zanna, Don’t! continues through Jan. 18 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.