“Good Morning Heartsville!” (–and anywhere thoroughly entertaining, thought-provoking, musical theater is enjoyed and respected.) “Zanna, Don’t!”–the latest offering at “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic” in Los Angeles, California, is more exciting than the “State Chess Championship”—and in the “Alternate Reality” in which it transpires, that’s really saying something! The first production of their 2017 Season, this 2003 Off-Broadway hit promises a change of pace—literally! Featuring a book, music, and lyrics by Tim Acito with additional lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris, “The Chromolume’s” new production is directed by Lauren J. Peters with Choreography by Michael Marchak and Musical Direction by Daniel Yokomizo. A first-rate farce with an uproarious and outrageous script that astutely address some deeper social issues as well, the show actually has more in common with say, “Footloose”, “Westside Story”, or even “High School Musical” than with its title’s sound-alike, “Xanadu” (–the stage version of which having eventually made its own debut on “The Gay White Way” in 2007.) Acito’s book and lyrics are packed with witty turns-of-phrase that frequently house some shrewd observations, while his music is always lively–capturing the hope and exuberance of youth, while straddling the line between the best of today’s “Pop” sound while keeping with the most effervescent of “Broadway’s” finest “show tune” tradition. He even throws in a few clever nods to such other Broadway and pop-culture standard-bearers as “Grease”, “Hairspray”, “Rocky Horror” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle”.
Set in a parallel universe (“in the heart of America” to be exact,) this tale of a different, but still highly relatable, kind of teen-romance plays out in a world where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is strictly taboo. There, at the self-righteously ‘Heterophobic’ “Heartsville High” (where even the school colors are pink and white, and the latest book causing a furor in the school’s library is “Heather Has ONE Mommy And One Daddy”,) the resident ‘Magical Matchmaker’ “Zanna”, spends his days “making empty hearts whole”, gaily bringing together same-sex couples with the help of his pink “magic wand”. “Fairy-tales don’t happen magic,” he reminds us; “there’s got to be someone waving that wand!” On the first day of the new school year, we meet “Steve Bookman”–the football-team’s new “star” quarterback, along with “Kate Aspero”–the captain of the “Girls’ Intramural Mechanical Bull-Riding Team”. At first, their adolescent lives go along fairly uneventfully—his with “Mike Singer”, the Chess Champion of the entire school (–a very big deal in this realm of existence) whom “Zanna” loses no time hooking him up with; while she has “Roberta” (the lass who “Zanna” has, in the same way, matched her to.) Things begin to change however, when the other pupils in their crowd decide to write a show for the spring musical that explores the controversial issue of whether heterosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Calling it “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, given that it’s “Mike” who’s writing the show, “Steve” is naturally given the lead–even if it means being put in the supremely embarrassing position of having to (–gasp–) kiss a girl on stage in front of everybody! (“So,” Zanna coolly advises him, “Pretend it’s a guy!”) As part of their production, Kate’s character comes upon Steve as her fallen (straight) comrade, asserting that she can heal him “with an open mind!” Of course, once they do kiss, something inside each is stirred and the pair begin to discover their deeper—and severely looked down upon—romantic attraction for each other. To add further complications, Zanna just may be falling for Steve himself! Once ‘outed’, the couple are immediately ostracized and turn to Zanna for help. This he selflessly gives them, even if it means losing his ‘mystical mojo’ and chancing that he could become the one who’s the outcast. Nonetheless, sometimes “Happy Ever After” can take the most unexpected form, and, not one to be underestimated, our boy “Zanna” just may wind-up finding acceptance for everyone–and specifically, someone for himself after all.
Being a smaller cast musical, “doubling” of characters is now and then utilized by the supporting players, but this doesn’t mean that the show is in any way lacking some truly impressive “Big” Production Numbers. Thanks to the dexterous work of the multi-talented cast, not to mention to Ms. Peters’ fluid, insightful, direction and the daringly unique and always enlivening choreography of Marchak, they carry out some jivey, street-savvy, and even at one point, rustic ‘country’ dance maneuvers—while conjuring some terrific group harmonies in the process. This is apparent right from the get-go with the bouncy, lightning-fast opening, “Who’s Got Extra Love” which effectively launches the proceedings into the stratosphere. Later, when we meet the girls’ “Intramural Mechanical Bull-Riding Team” with “Ride ‘Em”, the resultant number is as all-out hilarious as it is rollicking and rhythmic. Presenting the full-cast (some in drag) as the “all female’ team, they ‘git ‘er done’ with a high-spirited, two-stepping’, boot-scooting’ “hoe-down”! (It’s also noted then, that Kate’s photo on the team’s flyer she’s been passing out is from their last season’s final “production”: a bull-riding version of “Swan Lake”!) Meanwhile, their “show within a show” contains a number called “Be A Man”. Led by “Zanna”, it’s both a sultry and balletic look at the armed forces, employing lots of pliés, tendus, tour-jetés and other fanciful moves, but in a wholly new, and refreshing context. (“I don’t know what you been told, can’t win a war with heteros!” they chant in mock-drill formation.) After the break, “Whatcha Got” also starts simply, then develops into a top-notch, hip-hop tinged dance-interlude involving the entire cast, before the big climactic “Prom” scene, wherein Zanna realizes the “success” of his spell (and its biting consequences.) This too, is made still more electrifying by the group’s efforts during “Straight To Heaven”, which integrates several great old-style ‘twistin’ the night away’ type steps; its reprise—this time titled “Right To Heaven”, attempts to set things…well, ‘right’ again, as the students try to understand what’s happened and express support for their now powerless pal. Immediately following, the toe-tapping, hand-clapping finale (which takes place after the Curtain Call) likewise sees the entire cast jubilantly dancing in the aisles (you’ll want to too!)
Tackling the titular role of ‘Heartsville High’s’ very own “Fairy God Father” “Zanna”, Jason Bornstein provides a manic mix of a fledgling Gene Wilder circa his “Producers” days with the engaging gentle-nature of “Sex And The City’s” “Stanford Blatch”. Clad in pink tennis shoes and matching tee, he informs us within those inaugural notes of “Who’s Got Extra Love” that his job is that of a “Love Sleuth”, looking for potential new lovers he can help get acquainted, then thrive. (“Love is all around it just has to be found—my job is making sure it gets spread around!” he serenades.) Also boasting a bona fide “Broadway Belter’s” singing prowess, Bornstein puts it to excellent use during his soliloquy, “Zanna’s Song” and its second act reprise, which not only displays his rich, melodic expertise, but also his talent at conveying genuine emotion through it. In them we discern that despite his efforts on others’ behalf, (and his protestations to the contrary) “Zanna” may be the loneliest of all. This vulnerability benefits him well as his character also happens to be is the primary voice of wisdom and compassion. This he demonstrates in the valiant, if fateful, “Tis A Far, Far Better Thing I Do”, when “Zanna” prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice so our Hero and Heroine can, in fact, find their happy ending. “Nothing done out of love can ever do us harm” he declares, later incanting for the pair, “I can’t change you, but I can change the World!” Shortly thereafter, his poignant 11 O’clock summation, “Someday You Might Love Me” may (very appropriately) leave you a little teary-eyed.
Jacob Zelonky is “Steve Bookman”, the new kid in school with a secret even he doesn’t know he has until it impulsively “comes out”. Not at all the arrogant, over-sized “Jock” one might readily expect, instead his take is far more accessible and empathetic—much like your kid-brother or the lad who bags your groceries, continuing to possess that shade of awkward inner-hesitancy inherent to all of our teenage years. Plus, he has a prodigious voice which he exhibits to superb advantage commencing with his part in “I Think We Got Love “. Shared with Steve’s soon-to-be ‘Significant Other’ “Mike”, together this buoyant introduction to both their voices has a feel reminiscent of the young “Everly Brothers”. Joining him is Jillian Easton as “Kate Aspero”, the Captain of the “Girl’s Intramural Mechanical Bull Riding Team” (and Roberta’s girlfriend, until Kate herself acknowledges the same secret yearning for Steve.) Fresh-faced and affable with a smooth, bluesy vocal quality, she proves it with fantastic flair, particularly by leading “Ride ‘Em”. Then, once she and Steve at last do admit their feelings for one another, they indeed make a very sweet couple with a charming, “Younger than Springtime Am I” kind of on-stage chemistry.
Everjohn Feliciano too, has an awesome voice and genial stage presence as Steve’s boyfriend, “Mike Singer”–the school’s resident chess champion and “big man on campus”. He furnishes many laudable moments throughout, but his benediction “I Could Write Books”, which closes out Act One is the kind of heartfelt expression we all wish we’d hear from our chosen partners. Here, Feliciano’s simple but deeply touching interpretation makes for another absolute standout, as Mike, confused by his lover’s sudden distance and bewildering behavior, ruminates on what love can put us through—both good and bad. (It also evidences still more of Acito’s breath-taking way with a starkly honest and profound verse.) Moreover, Vanessa Magula as Kate’s main-squeeze, “Roberta” can lay claim to a formidable voice in her own right, with an equally compelling, soulful song-styling akin to a young Aretha Franklin. Then again, her preliminary salvo, “I Ain’t Got Time” recalls all of Motown’s most dynamic hit makers (Little wonder it ranked as a first act “crowd pleaser” on opening night!) She also shines after intermission taking charge of “Whatcha Got?” with an earthy, groovin’, beat, and backed by members of the ensemble, as they try to cheer “Mike” on to a win at the State Chess Championship. As a quartet, “Don’t You Wish We Could Fall In Love” is a vivacious, be-boppin’ Act Two opener performed by Zelonky, Easton, Feliciano and Magula, which magnificently showcases each of these awesome singers, as the couples they portray lament their frustrated relationship-troubles. Subsequently, they all reunite again—and with just as much potency, for the wistful and affecting, “Do You Know What It’s Like?” Occurring as “Mike’ once more lays his emotions bare, he rhetorically asks “Do you know what it’s like to be in love with you?” before “Steve”–himself filled with confusion and self-recrimination, counters painfully, “Do you know what it’s like not to be in love with you?!”; the two are quickly mirrored by “Kate” and “Roberta” who are every bit as confounded by the strange emptiness they shouldn’t be experiencing. Authentic moments of this caliber in any musical are rare—this one has them in spades.
In the same manner, venerable support is bestowed by the co-starring members of the cast as well. They include Ken Maurice Purnell as “Tank”—“The voice of reason, the voice of the season” and the school’s DJ at its “student run radio station” WLUV. Perched above the stage, he smartly sets the times and places through his “broadcasts”, while also doubling as “Tex” during the side-splitting segment at “The I’m OK, You’re OK, Corral”—a local hangout for the kids in town. Lilly Elliott also disburses her share of laughs as “Candi McAllistar”–Heartsville High’s bespectacled, uber-perky “Drama Club President”, and the gal with her figurative “fingers in numerous pies” around the school. She too, doubles at the fore-mentioned locale as the kindly, milk-pushing bar-maid, “Loretta”, while Michael Angel has a substantial stage-presence as Heartsville High’s “Buck”—the kind of good ol’ boy who’s “best bud” to one and all. He similarly appears as a fast-talking, Stetson-sportin’ cow-poke named “Bronco”. As their ‘alter-egos” at the Corral, the trio is responsible for the brilliantly delivered “Fast”. Half song-half square-dance call, it extolls the virtues of falling in love quickly: “We fall in love fast, so we can take the rest of life slow; cause once you’ve gone to love, there ain’t no place else to go. So you better fall in love fast, or someone else just might. Gentlemen, start your engines; buckle your seatbelts tight!” they rapidly elucidate. True to its name it keeps getting fast and faster, and more and more tongue-twisting each time. A challenge? Definitely—and one these three meet and triumph with–luminously!
Arguably one of the more multifaceted productions to play at “The Chromolume” in a while, “Zanna, Don’t” is also among their more significant, while remaining endlessly surprising and delightful. Accompaniment comes gratis of “The Heartsville High Band” situated at the back of the stage behind the action. Led by Musical Director Daniel Yokomizo at the piano, in concert with John Graves on Bass, Anthony Jones on Drums and Jeff Fish, also on Drums, they aid immensely in keeping the goings-on energetic, in tune, in step and en pointe. So too, Richard Fong’s exceptionally colorful lighting design adds a sense of vibrancy to the proceedings, whereas Michael Mullen’s costumes are bright and eye-catching, often subtly supplying their own kind of commentary on the action. In addition, he really pulls out all the stops for those worn at “The Prom”—especially “Zanna’s” multi-hued pastel suit complete with glittery adornments that has to be seen to be believed! On opening night, even “The Chromolume’s” own V.P. of Operations and the production’s Sound-Designer, James Esposito, put in a nifty cameo appearance of sorts as the voice of “Principal Cooper”.
True, “Disney” it ain’t (–quite yet!) Overall though, regardless of how one views the comic topsy-turvy nature of the subject matter, this “Family Friendly” show can—and should be—enjoyed by viewers of all ages. So never mind the ‘straight’ way; the team at “The Chromolume Theatre” have found the ‘right’ way to theatrical heaven with “Zanna, Don’t!” Upon opening on Friday, January 13th, the show plays through February 5th, 2017, at “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic” located at 5429 W. Washington Boulevard, in Los Angeles, CA. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 7:00 pm. Tickets may be purchased online at www.crtheatre.com or via telephone at 323-205-1617. For more information, visit www.crtheatre.com or call 323-510-2688.
Production Photos by Tyler Vess, Courtesy of Ken Werther at Ken Werther Publicity (www.kenwerther.com) and James Esposito at “The Chromolume Theatre”; Special Thanks to Ken Werther, James Esposito, Lauren J. Peters, Michael Marchak, Daniel Yokomizo and to the Cast & Crew Of “The Chromolume Theatre” at “The Attic’s” 2017 Production Of “Zanna, Don’t!” For Making This Story Possible.