BWW Review: ZANNA, DON'T! at Island City Stage

BWW Review: ZANNA, DON'T! at Island City Stage

Island City Stage presents the Off-Broadway musical Zanna, Don't! - A Musical Fairy Tale featuring book, music and lyrics by Jim Acito, with additional book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris.

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 that same 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 (Conor Walton). With the help of his magic wand, Zanna tends to the hearts and lives of all around him in this fantastical tale touting a humorous and hopeful message of tolerance and acceptance.

Welcome to Hartsville High, set in an upside-down world where everyone is gay. At Hartsville High the big-man-on-campus is the school chess champion (Eric Daniel O'Keefe), 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 (Arrow ZurSchmiede) and woman (Mallory Newbrough) in the cast to fall in love with each other. They must then face the painful task of "coming out" to themselves and to the world as heterosexuals, and risk the shame of criticism and ridicule for the sake of a forbidden love between a man and woman that "dare not speak it's name".

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.

In Zanna, Don't! 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. The acting is more about over-acting, and there is plenty of humor in reversed stereotypes and plays on situations. There are also inside jokes for the musical theatre devotees in the audience. One would wish that we are told how Zanna comes to be the only person in Hartsville with magical powers, but after all this is all a frothy fairy tale.

Musically, the show is a bit eclectic, and the pop melodies sound like they come from a mash up of Camp Rock The Musical and High School Musical. The performers work seamlessly with tracked accompaniment, and the both the individual and ensemble voices are generally solid. Though the cast does a good job with theses songs, the melodies to this show are rather forgettable. Still there is the entertainingly funny "Fast", which true to it's name, is a furiously fast tongue-twister of a song sung by a trio in the second act. They get every frantic syllable with a nary a breath to be caught. The enjoyable first act duet "I Think We Got Love" is also one of the musical bright spots in the show. The cast's finest musical 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 merely frothy to meaningful and poignant.

Conor Walton is perfectly cast in the title role of Zanna. Sparkling with rhinestones and waving his wand, he is like the love child of Glinda the Good Witch of the North and Liberace. As the good-hearted Cupid of Hartsville High, Walton skips across the stage with style and sass, indulging in every possible flourish and pout upon which the character is built.

Sahid Pabon is very watchable in all the ensemble numbers. He seems the most assured in his dancing, and his singing voice carried above the other cast members. A funny Darcy Hernandez-Gil brings a great, quirky edge to her character of Roberta. Eric Daniel O'Keefe is very likeable as the chess champion Mike. Mallory Newbrough manages to cull enough sincerity as Kate to evoke a tear while singing "Do You Know What It's Like?". Casey Sacco shows some strong character acting skills in multiple roles. Randall Swinton and a young Arrow ZurSchmiede are both promising actors not yet quite as strong as their peers in this production, but still turn in commendable performances.

The cast members all work remarkably well together, and present the feel of a strongly unified ensemble. Likewise, I felt the costumes, hand-props, and scenic design all seemed to come together solidly, especially in this small space. It is a pleasure to see a show run so smoothly early in it's run. Kudos to choreographer Andy Fiacco as the choreography makes great use of the space and the abilities of the cast, and complements the style of each song very fittingly. All of it is enjoyable, and is energetic without being frenetic. The whole show feels smartly staged and executed - and it's hard to beat a show based on the universal theme of acceptance. So if you are looking for a few laughs in the 'fabulous' world of Zanna Don't!, hurry on down to Island City Stage.

Zanna, Don't was nominated in 2003 for both a Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical. The musical also received a 2003 Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Award for its "fair, accurate and inclusive representations" of the gay community and issues that affect their lives.

This Island City Stage production of Zanna, Don't! - A Musical Fairy Tale will be appearing through February 11, 2018. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 5:00 pm at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors. Founded in 2012, Island City Stage has gained the reputation of being a multi-award winning professional theater that provides stellar performances for those in the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Wilton Manors/Oakland Park communities. We specialize in developing new work in addition to featuring the works of playwrights who expose audiences to different voices and experiences. These works are brought to life on stage through the talents of professional artists, both union and non-union, whose credits include Broadway, Off Broadway, National Tours, major regional theatres, film and television. For tickets and information go to islandcitystage.org or call the box office at 954-519-2533.

Cast:
Zanna: Conor Walton*
Roberta: Darcy Hernandez-Gil
Candi: Casey Sacco
Mike: Eric Daniel O'Keefe
Tank: Sahid Pabon
Kate: Mallory Newbrough
Steve: Arrow ZurSchmiede

Crew:
Director: Andrew Rogow
Music Director: Michael Ursua
Choreography/Projection Design: Andy Fiacco
Scenic Design: Natalie Tavaras
Lighting Design: Dean Lanhuis
Sound Design: David Hart
Costume Design: Peter A. Lovello
Stage Manager: Jeff Ostrow

* Designates member of Actors' Equity Association: the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

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