Zanna, Don’t, the incredibly likeable and energetic musical which has just opened at Clapham’s Landor, first saw the light of day off-Broadway in 2003, finally finding its way to London six years later where it played to packed houses at Hampstead’s Gatehouse in 2009.
This new and very peppy production sees the auditorium of The Landor reconfigured into a three-quarter round stage (traverse with seating at one end) meaning you’re never far from the cast.
The plot is straightforward, if not to say simple, and though it does have its faults – more of which later – it has charm in abundance.
In essence it is every US teen rom-com you’ve ever seen, and takes place in an all-American High School in the mid-west, Heartsville High. The only difference is that in the world of Zanna, Don’t, everyone is gay, it’s cooler to be the captain of the chess club than the principal quarterback on the football team, and being in the high school musical is how the in-crowd earn their street cred.
The school’s matchmaker, Zanna (a sparkling David Rabi), wand in hand, talks to his friendly bluebird who tells whim who is lonely, and who needs matchmaking.
At the start of the new term, the school gets ready to welcome a new jock, Steve, (a tall and muscular Liam Christopher Lloyd) whose two dads are both in the army, so he moves schools quite a bit. Thanks to Zanna, Steve soon falls in love with Mike (the charming Jonathan Dudley), the untra-cool captain of the chess team.
Meanwhile, Roberta (gospel-voiced Jennifer Saayeng) is newly single, so Zanna fixes her up with Kate (Ceri Hine).
All is going well, until Mike persuades head of the drama society, Candi (the wonderfully officious Carol Heffernan) and her assistant Arvin (Jonathan Wooldridge) that they need to make their mark by putting on a musical about heterosexuals, which they do, called ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ – however, Steve, and Kate come to the growing realisation that they are actually heterosexuals themselves and leave their respective partners for each other.
Zanna tries to put everything right, and in doing so (spoiler alert) turns – almost – everyone in the world straight, so that they can pair off together.
So, I hear you ask, what is there not to like? Well, I have to congratulate Drew Baker on some very fluid direction, and ditto Tom Scanlon for his energetic and innovative choreography which for some of the numbers – notably the country and western pastiche, ‘fast’ – seemed to pass in a blur. The set is one of the better ones I’ve seen at The Landor, and the cast are dressed immaculately by Andrew Cox.
So? Well, I’m afraid to say that yet again it’s all about the book. If I’m honest, I could pass over the ‘Whose story? What do they want? What’s stopping them from getting it?’ triptych, because I was having so much fun with what was happening on stage. These are well drawn characters, well acted and sung, and the dialogue and songs is laugh-out-loud funny.
Zanna, Don’t is a wonderfully high-energy show, but the plot progression is that of moving – with the flick of Zanna’s magic wand, and using a spell which will render him magically impotent – from a fantastically coloured, clever, witty, musical ‘gay’ world which is created with such confidence and care, into a straight world which, to be honest, was a real let down (plus ca change) compared to what has gone before. It’s at this point that all the energy that’s been would up into the show just dissipates, and the show goes flat.
It really was a case of ‘be careful what you wish for, because you’ll live to regret it’. There is no clever plot twist, just a bit of a tagged-on ending which, to be honest, left me feeing – through no fault I should stress of the cast and creatives – cheated that I’d invested all my emotional energy in this wonderful world created before me, only to have it pulled away for no good reason at the last minute.
This is a show with a sexy and talented cast, and in spite of my reservations about the plot, I’d probably would happily sit through it again, and probably enjoy it just as much next time. Go see!