In fall 2002, the musical comedy that created its own unique universe, complete with quirky specialty songs about the nature of love, became a talked-about sell-out in its brief Off-Off-Broadway tryout run. Now, after a little script tinkering, an open-ended commercial run at the Houseman on 42nd Street introduces a wider audience to the music, book and lyrics of newcomer Tim Acito.
Set in a high school in Heartsville, USA, the show is billed as "musical fairy tale," focusing on two teen-age same-sex couples, Mike and Steve, and Kate and Roberta. Steve is the star quarterback and Mike is captain of the chess team; Roberta has just been dumped but hooks up with Kate, star of the mechanical bull-riding team.
The already upside-down world gets further twisted when one partner from each couple comes to realize their dawning heterosexuality. A pal of the couples is Zanna, a fashionably hip matchmaking teen (played by Jai Rodriguez) with super powers and a secret crush of his own. Think of the show as a bright hybrid of Bye Bye Birdie, Grease and Footloose.
The cast includes Anika Larsen (as Roberta), Darius Nichols (as Buck), Amanda Ryan Paige (as Candy/Karla), Enrico Rodriguez (as Mike), Robb Sapp (as Tank), Shelley Thomas (as Kate) and Jared Zeus (as Steve). Most of the players double and triple in roles. The intermissionless show began previews March 5.
The commercial Off-Broadway run follows a hot-selling Off-Off-Broadway run in October 2002 where producers Jack M. Dalgleish, in association with Stephanie A. Joel, and librettist-composer-lyricist Acito (who also did vocal arrangements) got a fuller look at the show and were able to address rough spots prior to the 2003 leap. Amas Musical Theatre presented the tryout. Rewrites happened over the past few months, but there are not wholesale song cuts or additions, a spokesman said. All but the two Rodriguez actors (who are not related) originated their roles in 2002. Actor Michael Kaokept (who played Mike in 2002) was recently in The Public Theater's musical, Radiant Baby.
Zanna, Don't! earned positive reviews and played to packed houses at Theatre Row's Rodney Kirk Theatre. Preview audiences for the current run have gone wild for the director-choreographer Devanand Janki's staging. Show-stopping applause is not uncommon, particularly after numbers such as "Be a Man"/"Don't Ask, Don't Tell," "Fast" and the funky "Whatcha Got?" The show has additional book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris.
The work's varied pop sound and bright, middle-of-the-road, matter-of-fact attitude about love make it a property to varied audiences.
"The gay audience is a core market," producer Dalgleish told Playbill On-Line, agreeing that audiences who come to the show are surprised to learn the work is not the raunchy, bitchy or fleshy sort of show that some people expect from some gay-oriented stage shows.
He said his challenge as a producer is to let people know the show is a social satire with heart and sincerity, boasting a score that flirts with funk, rock, pop, classic musical theatre, country and more.
Trouble brews in the show's gay universe when high school pals Kate and Steve find they are attracted to each other after sharing a passionate moment in the school musical (about straights in the military). They are shunned as outsiders and even consider running off to San Francisco, which has a reputation as a heterosexual enclave.
While it does spoof gay cliches and gender attitudes, the show ultimately "lets you see individuals and not stereotypes," said Dalgleish.
Musical supervision is by Edward G. Robinson. Production designers are Wade Laboissonniere and Tobin Ost. Lighting design is by Jeffrey Lowney and sound design is by Robert Killenberger. David Geist is musical director and dance arranger.
The John Houseman is at 450 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are $65. Performances play 8 PM Tuesday, 2 PM Saturday, 3 & 7 PM Sunday. For information, call (212) 239-6200.
Producer Dalgleish told Playbill On-Line Zanna, Don't! is so popular because it's universal and timeless.
"To me, the show's about love and relationships and about people who have felt different in their lives — and that's everybody in the world," Dalgleish told Playbill On-Line in fall 2002.
Dalgleish, a producer of Off-Broadway's Shakespeare's R&J, discovered the then-largely bookless Zanna, Don't! at the Yale Cabaret in New Haven in March 2001, and told composer-lyricist-librettist Tim Acito he wanted to develop the show further, if Acito was willing to continue refining the piece.
"I called the author and told him how I felt," Dalgleish said."The basis was there: He had set up this inventive, ingenious reverted world, but Zanna was a drag queen. I said, 'I see a great piece of musical theatre, but I'm not interested in producing a drag show, and if you're interested in going on the journey, let's go.'"
Reviews for the first fully-produced run at the Kirk were constructive and encouraging, the producer said.
Shepherding the show, Dalgleish shared the score with several producers in New York in 2001, but only Donna Trinkoff, producing director of Amas Musical Theatre signed on, giving the nascent show two readings prior to the Oct. 8-Nov. 3, 2002, full staging. The show also fit nicely with Amas' mission of "multi-ethnic musical theatre."
Capitalization for Off-Broadway is less than $1 million, Dalgleish said.
Writer-creator Acito received an MFA in playwriting from Yale in spring 2002. His musical, The Sungatherers, premiered at Yale in May 2002. He also wrote a musical, The Waves, based on a Virginia Woolf novel, and the musical, Melvin and the Sock Monster, a children's animated screenplay being adapted for the stage. Before his writing life, he toured as a modern dancer.