Monday, 22 June 2009

Zanna Don't- A Modern Fairy Tale. And a Darn Good Musical


Mike Shearer as the ultra-cute Zanna

Upstairs at the Gatehouse seemed like a strange place to put on a modern musical about homosexuality. Nestled in a villagey suburb of North London above the (not-so-great) pub of the same name it really takes the term "fringe" to heart. But alas I could not forgo the chance to see the London Premiere of Zanna Don't. I bought the cast recording in Virgin Megastore on Broadway during my trip to New York in 2003 and it has certainly been well-loved. Like many other musicals it is often written off as fun, frivolous and happy-clappy, the synopsis does little to help the situation- a world where homosexuality is the norm and a magical matchmaker who makes everyone fall in love. Hmm... My opinion on the subject differs somewhat and so I was interested to see what direction this production would take the material in. I was also sceptical about the expansion of the ensemble; the original cast consisted of 8 actors with 3 playing multiple subsidiary parts.

As usual when I book tickets for something I desperately want to see I woke up Sunday feeling like shit as so was not relishing a trek all the way to Highgate but as the ticket has already been bought and a friend was meeting me there I survived the long journey through the medium of my mp3 player and a hastily bought chicken sandwich.

At this point I should add that Zanna Don't is a piece that I long to direct, I planned out most of the blocking in my head during last year's hour long bus ride to college so my preconceptions of how I felt it should be done were many. I was also worried I would spend this review comparing the London production to the (bootleg video of the) Off-Broadway production. Luckily I was in for a big surprise.

I knew the source material was good- the book was witty, inserting a few in-jokes for those musical theatre geeks like myself without alienating the rest of the audience. The storyline was inventive and with enough depth and characterisation to make a lasting impression. Tim Acito's score turns from fun and bubbly pop to sombre and intense ballad from one song to the next. The songs are catchy and memorable with some great harmonies and intricate counterpoint moments (harmonies and counterpoint make me smile. I smiled a lot during Zanna Don't)

The setting was simple but worked with the space with copious amounts of purple (I like purple) and few props (although I do want Zanna's wand, it was awesome). Costumes served their dual purpose of characterisation and making everyone look fit as. So maybe the second purpose was just in my head.
From the moment I heard Tank's opening monologue I knew I was in for a treat. The direction was superb- fluidic and full of clever blocking to make the most of the stage. Particular treats for me were the opening number Who’s Got Extra Love? which managed to combine exposition, counterpoint and some crazy staging without losing momentum (hear that Sister Act? You can provide momentum without fancy scenery). Whilst I was at first hesitant about the use of a person with a soft toy and bird whistle as Cindy the magical bird, this really worked, Larissa Webb made her more than just a singing prop and into a whole new character. Another bouncy favourite was Straight To Heaven; the choreography was so inventive, infused with the essence of pop, disco and hip hop and never once looked messy on such a tiny stage.
The only scene I felt didn't work was Ride Em'. I appreciated the inventiveness of using space hoppers as mechanical bulls but it just became farcical and almost cringe worthy to see a line of dancing space hoppers dressed up in leather, curtain rings and googly eyes.

So far, so much that I had expected- a fun and energetic play about homosexuals. But what hit me in the second act was the heart and the sadness of the piece. In Do You Know What It's Like, the four leads are alone after two shared a forbidden kiss and lament their longing for each other in a beautiful four part ballad. What I hadn't expected was to find myself in tears. Yes, I cried during that number, it was just so poignant and acted so well.

 Michael Stacey, my friend knows him, he's even better looking in real life

After this the story takes a perilous turn, Kate and Steve urge Zanna to change the world to make it safe for them as a heterosexual couple. He does so during Blow Winds staged in such an effective way I nearly cried out "No!!" as the "Heartsville High" banner was harshly removed to reveal "Hartsville" and Zanna's blanket was ripped from under his feet. This new world was made to feel scary and cruel by the very talented cast. I found myself again crying as Zanna was taunted and bullied by his once-friends and now tormentors. I couldn't stop myself from gasping when they broke his wand. The ending, although it appeared light and frothy was bittersweet, friendships had been lost and the world forever changed.

The cast were almost uniformly superb. Mike Shearer as Zanna was predictably lovable and peppy but also showed a sensitive and vulnerable side that I didn't get from Jai Rodriguez's original portrayal. I also loved Bonnie Hurst who played Roberta similarly to the original but with her own "pizzazz". Kate Malyon took Kate in a direction I'd never thought of before. She was strong and powerful but again, vulnerable- the doubt that could be heard when she sang "I'm gonna love her" was heartbreaking. Michael Cotton and Michael Stacey as Steve and Mike respectively represented to ends of the spectrum for me. I felt Cotton's Steve was too straight and slightly awkward; he didn't quite fit in with the rest of the cast. If I were Kate I don't think I'd have wanted to fall in love with him. Whereas Michael Stacey was perfect as Steve, the vocals and acting were spot on, I really felt for him struggled to come to terms with his boyfriend's dalliances in I Could Write Books. Plus he was hot; he had the Geek Chic look down to a tee :) Within the ensemble, two characters stood out as scene 
stealers: Lyndsey Orr as Candi and William J. Cassidy as Arvin. Their chemistry was great and were just so alive and in character.

I was really surprised by the high standards of the Wild Oats group, having never seen one of their productions before. They took Zanna Don't to a new level, beyond the camp and froth to a powerful show with heart about love and friendship and what happens when it is taken away.
I left the show really affected, the tube journey all the way back home was spent listening to the soundtrack as I reminisced the great afternoon of theatre I had just seen.

The scene stealers of Zanna Don't

(Kudos to the Zanna Don't Website for the pics, they were the only ones I could find!!

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