By Oline H. Cogdill
Island City Stage’s highly entertaining production of the musical Zanna, Don’t! will never be confused with a show by Stephen Sondheim, though there are numerous references to the famed composer. (How could there not be at least one homage to Sondheim in a gay-themed musical?)
Amid the numerous pop culture references, including nods to Grease and Rocky Horror Picture Show, and well-timed humor, Zanna, Don’t! slyly, yet forcefully, maintains that everyone has a right to love whom they want. “Nothing done out of love can do us harm,” is the refrain said by more than one character.
There’s also dancing, singing, a magic wand with a mind of its own and two standout performances—Conor Walton and Mallory Newbrough.
Zanna, Don’t! is the perfect vehicle for the first musical at Island City Stage, which, through the leadership of founding artistic director Andy Rogow, has established a reputation for producing thought-provoking LGBTQ-themed comedies and dramas.
The Island City Stage production marks the South Florida premiere of Tim Acito’s Zanna, Don’t!, which began its developmental run on off-Broadway in 2002. Since then, Zanna, Don’t! has been produced by theaters across the country and at international festivals, including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Zanna, Don’t! is set in the midwestern town of Heartsville where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuals are an oddity. This isn’t just unique to Heartsville; the majority of the world is gay or lesbian. No one believes they even know a heterosexual and one character is crushed when he is told that the singer Tom Jones, whose music his two dads’ love, may indeed be straight.
The musical begins on the first day of the school year and ends at prom and these high schoolers have the universal problems of all teenagers—love, breakups, studies, clichés, recognition and more. Here, girl gets girl, boy gets boy, and everything is fine. Chess champions are rock stars and these matches get the kind of attention and cheering that football games usually do.
As the school year begins, matchmaker extraordinaire Zanna and his trusty wand are ready to make sure everyone is paired up. Actor Conor Walton immediately electrifies Zanna, Don’t! with his energetic rendition of “Who’s Got Extra Love?” telling that Zanna’s mission is to make sure everyone at the school is paired up. Walton’s clear love of performing makes it impossible to look anywhere else when he is on stage. Walton totally embraces any show he’s in and there’s no holding back his exuberance whether he’s casting a spell, reading Cinderella for the umpteenth time or being swept away by his wand. It’s no wonder that Walton is up for a 2017 Carbonell Award for best supporting actor in a musical for It Shoulda Been You. (To see a complete list of Carbonell nominations, click here.)
One student who wants to avoid Zanna’s love spells is Kate, expertly played Mallory Newbrough who brings an intensity and vulnerability to overachiever Kate who would rather study than date. Kate’s sole extracurricular activity is as captain of the girls’ intramural mechanical bull-riding team. Newbrough is quickly becoming well known for her lovely voice and acting chops, as well as being a chameleon of an actress. If you saw her as Janis Joplin in The Wick’s Beehive, for which she is up for a Carbonell as best supporting actress in a musical, you may not have recognized her as Belle in The Wick’s Beauty and the Beast, for which she has a Carbonell nod as best actress in a musical or as the Southern belle in Area Stage’s An Octaroon or as the put-upon Audrey in MNM’s Little Shop of Horrors.
But love seems to find a way as Zanna manages to hook up new student Steve (Arrow ZurSchmiede), a quarterback who gives the football team its first touchdown, and Mike (Eric Daniel O’Keefe), the chess champ. And Kate also falls in love with Roberta (winningly played by Darcy Hernandez-Gil). Casey Sacco nails the school’s mean girl, who’s really more nice, and knows all the latest gossip. Rounding out the cast are Randall Swinton as the picked upon Arvin and Sahid Pabon as the d.j. Tank.
And all seems right with the world, once again.
But then the high school musical is coming up and someone suggests writing a new work, maybe based on straights in the military. How could there be such a thing?
As the high school play’s leads, Steve and Kate are at first repelled by the idea of playing clandestine (gasp!) straight (double gasp!) lovers in the military. But they increasingly realize they have been hiding their true selves all along. Scandalous! When their love becomes public, breaking the hearts of Mike and Roberta, suddenly their liberal, accepting high school friends aren’t so accepting. Oh dear, can a football player and a bull rider find love? Or should they?
It takes a while for ZurSchmiede to fully embrace the songs until
‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” his emotional duet with Newbrough. O’Keefe sometimes gets lost in the ensemble numbers but his solos such as “I Could Write Books” are right on point. As Roberta whose girlfriends always to cheat on her, Hernandez-Gil gives all to her terrific renditions of “I Ain’t Got Time.”
Director Rogow keeps the production moving as does choreographer Andy Fiacco, both of whom make the most of the intimate stage. Kudos to Manny Schvartzman for his pre-recorded accompaniment tracks and veteran musical director Michael Ursua who helms the musical performances.
Despite the small theater, some of the voices aren’t forceful enough and, without mikes, get lost. The words to the tongue-twisting “Fast” the kind of song Gilbert and Sullivan reveled in, are almost indecipherable, as is some of the dialogue.
Like all good fairy tales, Zanna, Don’t! begins with “once upon a time,” and ends with a happily ever after moment, though it may not be the one you were expecting. Zanna, Don’t! is Zanna, Do, no matter who you love.
Zanna Don’t runs through Feb. 11 at the Island City Stage at the Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors, 954-519-2533, IslandCityStage.org, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Running time two hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $45.
A word about parking: You may park in any of the spaces around the entire building in which the theatre is located, regardless of tow signs. In addition, you may park at the Poverello Live Well Center located behind the theatre (ignore the towing signs posted there). Please do not park in the retail space directly across the street from the Island City Stage front door.