Theater Review: Zanna, Don’t!
Zanna, Don’t!. By Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris. Directed by Robert C.T. Steele. Musical Direction by Harry Jamison. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. February 14 through March 3, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Sunday Matinees at 2PM.
Pittsburgh in the last bitter throes of winter is not known for the kind of vivid color and unbridled exuberance that Zanna, Don’t!, the Off Broadway hit by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris, brings to the stage in the current production by the Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. And I, for one, am grateful that it does. Zanna, Don’t! walks a fine (and fantastic) line between a whimsical drama of troubled high-school romances and the deeply heavy issue of intolerance in a culturally-inverted world where chess-team captains are school sex symbols and the most shocking thing imaginable is a heterosexual kiss scene in the school play. No, Zanna, Don’t! is not a subtle exploration of these themes but the points that it makes are not only timely but timeless. With a run time of an hour and forty minutes (done without intermission, no less), Zanna, Don’t! is a lively and blistering musical production that charges straight into the questions of what it means to fall in love in a time and place that rigidly proscribes what is and is not an acceptable expression of what the heart desires.
The world of Zanna, Don’t! is something of a photo-negative reflection of small-town American adolescence re-done in sequins and Technicolor. Set in the halls and hangouts of Heartsville High, the play follows the lives of students in a world where same-sex pairings are not only the norm, but the only thinkable option. The school DJ, Tank (played with incredible energy by Jay Garcia) reminds everyone, “Girls grab your girl, and guys grab your guy,” as the play begins with an upbeat number that introduces one of the most memorably over-the-top characters on the whole production: Zanna (played magnetically by Rocky Paterra). Zanna is part fairy godmother in lightning-patterned fuchsia pants, part magic wand wielding cupid in a gold-fringed jacket (complete with wings, of course). In this Gilbert and Sullivan-esque world where the marginalized have become the mainstream, Zanna is the incessantly optimistic magical match-maker. The score, it should be noted, is flawlessly delivered by a live group of musicians up center stage under the sharp leadership of conductor and pianist Harry Jamison. The music itself is a suitably vivacious mix of ’50s and ’70s pop-influenced numbers that keep the whole production clipping along through the uninterrupted run time.
Music aside, Zanna finds himself entangled in a slew of romantic shake-ups, not the least of which is his quest to light a fire in the hearts of the bashful school heart-throb (due to his standing as chess team captain, of course) Mike (played by Ethan Miller) and the new boy in school (and lowly football quarterback) Steve (played by Aric Berning). Among the moments to watch out for with these two are a scene at a Heartsville High football game wherein (through a novel use of strobe lighting) Steve in all of his pink-sequined uniformed glory wins the game with a touchdown by catching his own pass, and the locker room scene afterward where Zanna and Tank conspire (with several comically frustrated attempts) to make the two swoon with the power of a well-timed radio request. The comedic abilities of the cast as a whole are not to be under-rated: between the cheeky writing and the just-too-much nature of a musical about high-school romance, the cast delivers an energetic performance that keeps the audience laughing while challenging the authority of socially-informed notions of right and wrong regarding sexual orientation. And when else are you going to see a world in which a high school has a competitive mechanical bull-riding team (and I might be showing my ignorance here, but is that a thing?), and it is firmly seated at the apex of female social structure?
The social critique comes to a real head when Mike, our dreamy chess team captain, proposes a new play for the school musical—one that dares to ask the question of whether straights should be allowed in the military. In his words, “If musical theatre doesn’t address important issues, what will?” Just one in a slew of subverted expectations, the question itself provides the vehicle whereby this play gains its strongest and most culturally relevant grounds. It should be noted here that new boy Steve’s two dads are both generals in the army, and they are certain to be in attendance. Steve is faced with the most daunting and controversial aspect of the performance: an actual, real-life, on-stage heterosexual kiss. In the world of Zanna, Don’t!, the military is still a staunchly conservative (read: homo-normative) culture, and this is where we really start to see the fruits of the play’s often reductionist social inversions.
In our own world, it has only been since September 20th, 2011, that the federal law banning openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or DADT) was done away with. And still we read stories in the news about organizations like the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting openly homosexual men and boys from joining their ranks. As progressive as we may think our society to be, the threat of discrimination based on sexual orientation is not a thing of the past—it is terrifyingly real and often much more than just a threat. The power of this production is its ability (both through the writing and the abilities of the actors under the keen directorial eye of Robert C.T. Steele) to present its audience with a context that affords even the most comfortably heterosexual audience member with a much-needed “what-if” lesson in empathic understanding. In the world on stage, the opposite-sex kiss inevitably leads to an off-stage romance between Steve and his female counter-part (played by Liz Dooley), one which they try their best to in turn ignore, deny, hide, then embrace as they plan to escape to that great shining bastion of heterosexuality: San Francisco.
I would love to tell you how all of it ends, but that not only ruins the fun, it is beside the point. The point is the message: that love is love no matter who feels it; that the heart wants what it wants apropos of no one’s approval; that football uniforms could seriously use some more sparkle. The Pitt Repertory Theatre’s production of Zanna, Don’t! more than meets the challenge of a musical performance that is as demanding on its actors as it is rewarding to its audience. What’s more, the Pitt Repertory Theatre is partnering with area GLBT organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, and Persad to host after-show community discussions to address issues concerning not just the GLBT community, but everyone who knows that love is something we all share, even if we do not always share it with each other.