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Zanna, Don't!

By New York City
Fairy nice: Jai Rodriguez in Zanna, Don’t(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Fairy nice: Jai Rodriguez in Zanna, Don’t
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Several years ago, a guy named Dan Goggin wrote something called Nunsense. Though the book, music, and lyrics of that show might best be described as amateurish and pedestrian, Nunsense was a huge hit and spawned a number of equally amateurish, pedestrian sequels. There are two main reasons why it connected with audiences: (1) the concept of the show was so good that, as far as most people were concerned, its ham-handed execution was beside the point; and (2) Goggin surrounded himself with gifted collaborators whose efforts did much to mask his own shortcomings.

This same crooked path to theatrical success is now being taken by one Tim Acito with Zanna, Don't!, another musical theater trifle that is poised to make a ton of money for its undeserving author. Though there is much to enjoy in this show, it has some fundamental, unforgivable flaws that override most of the good will it generates.

As we take our seats in the John Houseman Theater, where Zanna is now playing after an Off-Off-Broadway run at the Kirk nearby on West 42nd Street, the legend "Once upon a time" hangs over our heads. That phrase may be intended to put one in mind of Into the Woods -- but, believe me, this ain't Stephen Sondheim. (As it turns out, Sondheim is referenced twice more during the show, which only serves to remind us of the immense gulf between the quality of his work and that of Tim Acito.)

Again, a major strength of this musical fable is its amusing concept. You see, Zanna posits an alternate world where homosexuality is the norm and straight people are considered deviant. The plot focuses on two high school couples: Mike, a chess champ, hooks up with Steve, a football star, even as waitress Roberta connects with mechanical bull rider Kate. (Shades of Urban Cowboy!) All is well until Steve and Kate begin to show a forbidden heterosexual interest in each other. Getting himself too deeply involved in everyone's lives is the title character, Zanna, who happens to be a fairy in both senses of the word -- i.e., he wields a wand that possesses magic powers and he's also gay to the nth degree.

When I first saw Zanna, Don't! in a workshop production last year, I found it almost unbearable: Acito's music struck me as pleasant but simplistic, his lyrics seemed shockingly inept, and his book failed to mine most of the humor inherent in the clever "Gay is Normal" construct of the show. Following that workshop, to the credit of the producers, Alexander Dinelaris was brought in to write "additional book and lyrics" for Zanna. The good news is that the book has been improved markedly; it's funnier now and the internal logic of the show is more consistent, though a lot of it still doesn't make sense. (I guess we're not supposed to wonder why straight folks are so thoroughly disdained in the world of Zanna when they're presumably the ones responsible for procreating all of these gay people.)

The bad news is that Dinelaris doesn't seem to have spent much or any time reworking Acito's lyrics, which seem to be just as wretched as before. We can tell we're in trouble from the first number, as the word "love" turns up again and again -- and again, and again. "Love" must be mentioned upwards of 200 times during this show, peppered as it is throughout the lyrics and the dialogue. Among the song titles are "Who's Got Extra Love?", "I Think We Got Love," "Don't You Wish We Could Be in Love," "Someday You Might Love Me," and "Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love?" Of course, as psychologists have taught us, this kind of dunning repetition causes a word or phrase to lose all meaning. By the time Zanna, Don't! is half over, whenever "love" comes out of someone's mouth, the person might as well be saying "shoelace" or "hamburger" or "blah-blah-blah."

That's not the only thing wrong with the lyrics. This show is full of false rhymes -- e.g., "done/from," "else/well," "wand/on," "room/you," and "love/enough." When Acito comes up with a rhyme that doesn't exactly work because one of the words has to be plural rather than singular, or vice versa, he just keeps or drops the "s" and expects us not to notice. And when a line fails to scan properly because it contains an extra syllable, he doesn't feel it worth the effort to fix that, either. Acito's Playbill bio informs us that he "just received his M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale," but that august institution certainly doesn't seem to have taught him anything about the separate and distinct art of lyric writing.

By the way: Zanna, Don't! should receive a Truth in Labeling award for its title, which reflects all too well the lack of wit and sophistication evidenced in the lyrics and, for the most part, in the book. The title is an obvious, sophomoric takeoff on the word "Xanadu" and may, perhaps, be intended as a reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" or to the fortress-like residence of the title character in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. But, given the intellectual level of this enterprise, it's probably meant to invoke that cheesy 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John.

Under the circumstances, it's faint praise indeed to say that Acito's music for Zanna, Don't! is far better than his lyrics. As mentioned above, the music is catchy but rudimentary; if a particular song happens to contain more than three or four chords, it's Schoenbergian in its complexity when compared to most of the others. This is not a major defect in itself, as such shows as Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, and even Hairspray have proven. But whereas the intentionally simple, pastiche-like scores of those musicals benefit from lyrics that range from good to superb, the words that Acito has set in Zanna only make his melodies and harmonies seem less than satisfactory in a guilt-by-association sort of way. Another problem is that even the show's better songs have little or nothing to do with the plot. One example: When Mike's friends urge him on to victory during a chess match, they do so by singing about sex -- which, one assumes, would only serve to distract him. The generic nature of the songs and the maddening repetition of the word "love" combine to engender the feeling that these ditties were written not to serve the story but in the hope that they might become Top 40 hits. (Yeah, that's gonna happen.)

A gay old time: The cast of Zanna, Don’t!(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
A gay old time: The cast of Zanna, Don’t!
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
So, why was a packed house loudly cheering Zanna, Don't! at the performance I attended? The short answer is that the audience loved the show's gay-positive message so much that they were more than willing to forgive its infelicities, if they noticed them at all. And, for what it's worth, Zanna has been given a fine production. The cast is excellent, starting with Jai Rodriguez -- who, oddly, was called in to replace Gregory Treco in the title role when the show moved on up to Off-Broadway. (Treco is now the general male understudy.) Anika Larsen, Darius Nichols, Amanda Ryan Paige, Enrico Rodriguez, Robb Sapp, Shelley Thomas, and Jared Zeus make up the rest of the wonderful ensemble. It's hard to single out any of them for special praise; that said, Rodriguez and Zeus have many nice moments as Mike and Steve, and Anika Larsen displays a powerful singing voice as Roberta.

Devanand Janki's crisp, pointed direction and delightful choreography blessedly draw much of our attention away from Acito's deplorable lyrics, and the physical production of Zanna is appropriately fanciful and colorful. Wade Laboissonniere and Tobin Ost are credited with "production co-design." Although Jeffrey Lowney is listed as the lighting designer in the Playbill itself, an insert informs us that this job has been taken over by Jeff Nellis. Musical supervision is by a fellow named Edward G. Robinson (!) and sound design is by Robert J. Killenberger.

At a pivotal point in the plot of Zanna, Don't!, the characters decide to present a school musical about "straights in the military" and one of them is assigned to write it on short notice. "A full length musical? That's gonna take at least a week!" he exclaims. Well, the score of Zanna, Don't! sounds like it was composed in about five days. Many theatergoers will be willing to slough off the show's flaws because of its pro-gay sensibility and because the production is entertaining in some respects, but honestly: Is it fair that a musical with truly inept lyrics and a problematic book should achieve and sustain any significant level of success? Tim Acito is undoubtedly basking in the standing ovations that are greeting his show, but I certainly hope for his sake that members of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop don't decide to attend a performance en masse. If they do, Zanna, Don't! will almost certainly have a much cooler reception on that particular evening.

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[Note: For opinions of Zanna, Don't! that are almost diametrically opposed to those expressed above, click on the following links to access Peter Filichia's column of February 15, 2002 and David Finkle's review of October 18, 2002.]


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