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Gregory Treco in Zanna, Don't!
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It seems as if, every decade or so, a campus musical breezes in to refresh whatever stale air might be gathering over Manhattan theaters. Good News, Babes in Arms, Best Foot Forward, and Grease are great examples of the sub-genre; if the definition of a campus musical is loosened, so are Hair and Rent. No matter what the narrative thrust, the subtext is always the same: Youth discovering its potential and asserting its new outlook. If the execution isn't flawless, lapses are often overshadowed by enthusiasm and confidence, with special thanks to young and eager troupers.

The latest worthy addition to the list is Zanna, Don't!, which is light years better than might be suggested by its twee title -- a reference to Samuel Coleridge's Xanadu -- which has an oblique connection to the play and its main character, a fellow named Zanna. Book, music, and lyrics for this welcome October surprise are by Tim Acito, who did his undergraduate gallivanting at Berkeley and his post-graduate stomping at Yale. Alexander Dinelaris, who went to Barry University, contributed additional book and lyric material.

Their joint effort, which they call "a musical fairy tale" (with an emphasis on the "fairy"), is silly, melodic, romantic, and imaginative. In other words, it's just about everything you might ask for from an eight-actor tuner at a time when -- thank our lucky stars! -- practitioners seem to be remembering that the term for enterprises like these used to be "musical comedy." The Acito-Dinelaris offering is also delightfully unpredictable.

Nothing in Zanna, Don't! is more unexpected than the storyline. The show takes place on the Heartsville High School campus, located in a hamlet where same-sex pairings are the norm and intolerance for heterosexuals is rampant. Zanna (Gregory Treco), a gay lad with magical powers, is the on-campus matchmaker. It's he who, in the course of the bouncy action, brings Mike (Adam Michael Kaokept) and Steve (Jared Zeus) together, not to mention Kate (Shelley Thomas) and Roberta (Anika Larsen). It's also Zanna who, in between chats with his cheerful bluebird friend Cindy, has to decide which way to swing his baton when Steve and Kate defy convention and fall for each other.

Soon, their attachment is revealed. And Zanna, who has been having trouble finding a same-sex mate for his swishy, lanky self, is faced with the choice between allowing Heartsville mating habits to remain what they've been or to change them. What he elects to do throws everyone -- including school busybody Candy (Amanda Ryan Paige), well-meaning deejay Tank (Robb Sapp), and an earnest young man named Buck (Darius Nichols) -- into a tizzy.

Since this fairy tale kicks off with the words "Once upon a time..." decorating a show curtain, it will come as no news that there are happy endings across the board. Given that Zanna, Don't! is an effort from relative novices, neither should anyone be shocked to learn that developments leading up to the denouement don't make total sense. The authors seem have fun sending up homophobia by creating this reverse, if not inverse, world -- but they never think of explaining, for example, how procreation works in Heartland. (Few in the audience for this exercise are likely to call that omission into question.) Acito and Dinelaris also seem to have jiggled the plot in order to reach a conciliatory everybody-love-everybody conclusion. In short, theatergoers who are looking for linear correctness are advised to look elsewhere, but those who are ready to go with the flow are promised some kicks.

The cast (clockwise from center):
Gregory Treco, Anika Larsen, Shelley Thomas,
Darius Nichols, Amanda Ryan Paige, Robb Sapp,
Jared Zeus, and Adam Kaokept
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
That flow surges wherever it wants; it's the logic of the show's illogic that makes so much of Zanna, Don't! delightful. This is especially true of the songs, which are dropped in whether they seem to have grown out of what's preceded them or not. Why is there a number featuring a bucking bronco? Who can say? Yet "Ride 'Em," with most of the cast in cowboy hats, explodes. Why are the performers suddenly clad in sequined camouflage outfits? The answer here makes perfect nonsensical sense: The kids are putting on a musical about heterosexuals in the military, so "Be a Man" merrily crops up -- and, not long after it, a Kate & Steve falling-in-love duet titled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Since this is a show about puppy romance, there are no less than five songs with "love" in the title. Two of the most infectious songs are "Faster" and "I Could Write Books." (This last, of course, triggers thoughts of the Lorenz Hart-Richard Rodgers standard' "I Could Write a Book" from Pal Joey).

Zanna, Don't! contains a long joke about the over-abundance of Sondheim tributes that could be easily dispensed with, along with several musical-making-fun-of-musicals gags of the type that are getting tiresome after Urinetown, The Producers, and even Hairspray. Maybe these kids are too recently arrived to realize that the sending-up of show biz is ground that has been more than sufficiently covered.

Campus musicals are, of course, a place for new and relatively new faces to collect, and the mixed-race cast assembled here is no exception. Not only are they all game but they act, dance, and sing energetically -- well, some sing better than others. At one point or another in the show, and in one or another of Wade Laboissonniere and Tobin Ost's cute costumes, each of the players gets a chance to shine. Shelley Thomas and Jared Zeus are great at goo-goo eyes, whether for someone of their own sex or for each other. Gregory Treco, who's tall and has a shaved head, gives good fairy. Anika Larsen and Adam Michael Kaokept both find the humor and heartbreak in being spurned. Amanda Ryan Paige, putting on and taking off a number of wigs, does what she does crisply and never better than when she turns Candy into one of those girls who know better than you. Congrats, too, to Robb Sapp and Darius Nichols for perpetuating the spirit.

Since this is a show that never stops and that has pieces of Laboissonniere and Ost scenery constantly being moved, the director has his hands full. So does the choreographer. Here, they're one and the same person: Devanand Janki, who does deft work by him from start to finish. Zanna? Do.

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