Revisiting a Topsy-Turvy World | “Zanna Don’t” at Chromolume

Zanna Don't (Chromolume)Back in 2007, the Republicans were in power, George W Bush was President, and the US Military was operating under a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In this environment, the West Coast Ensemble (FB) theatre company presented the West Coast premiere of Zanna Don’t, an Off-Broadway musical that had first run in 2003, in the same environment. Zanna Don’t, with music and lyrics by Tim Acito and additional book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris (FB), tells the story of an alternate reality where being homosexual is normal, and being heterosexual is unnatural and shunned, in order to make a point about the homosexuality laws of the time.

Fast forward to 2016. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” went away as policy in 2011, and the Supreme Court has legalized same sex marriage. One might thing this musical was overtaken by events (OBE). But Donald Trump is about to be installed as President with the support of a Republican Party that still opposes same sex marriage and homosexuality, working with a extremely Christian Vice-President who is also against same sex marriage. What was OBE is now, chillingly, relevant again.

In it in this atmosphere that Chromolume Theatre (FB, TW) has opted to remount Zanna Don’t as the first show of their 2017 season. The season almost didn’t happen, what with landlord trouble (don’t ask, but I’ve been told they have been resolved for 3 years) and the messy kerfuffle with Los Angeles Theatre. These have placed some limitations on Chromolume, being an under-50 seat theatre, especially in terms of budget, and number of performances, that weren’t there back in 2007 for WCE. Thus, the difference in the quality of the sets and costumes, for example, is not a surprise. (I’ll note that it also explains the three-show season). For you, reading this, there is one significant takeway: if this writeup makes this show sound interesting, get your tickets NOW. It won’t be extended, and this theatre needs as many full houses as possible, with full price patrons.)

As noted above, Zanna Don’t takes place in an alternate reality where being homosexual is normal, and being heterosexual is unnatural and shunned. Set in Heartsville USA, it  is the story of a matchmaker, Zanna, who lives only to help people fall in love with the right guy or girl. The show opens on a busy day, when Zanna is creating some new matches between the super-popular Chess team champion, Mike, and the new Football player, Steve. He also is matching up Roberta with the head of the precision mechanical bull riding team, Kate. He does this all with the aid of his canary, Cindy, his wand, and love music selected by Tank, the DJ. Life at high school is highlighted by the drama club musical, directed by Candi and her assistant, Brad. This year they have chosen to do something daring, something that upsets the locals and the school board. They are doing a musical about heterosexuals in the military. The musical stars Steve (the football player) and Kate (the bull rider). Although they each have their own partners (Steve has Mike, Kate has Roberta), the reluctantly agree to kiss. As you might guess, they fall in love. But this is a forbidden love, which has its consequences… that are explored in the second act.

Act II deals with the consequences of this love. Their partners are left in the dark, not understanding how someone could fall that way. Candi is disgusted, and is protesting to the school board, which promptly bans straight couples from the prom. The couple turns to Zanna, who unleashes a love spell that changes the world, a spell that makes the world safe for heteros. After the spell is cast, the scene changes to the prom… where in their black tuxes, Mike and Roberta and Candi and Brad all gather together to crown their new King and Queen: Mike and Kate. Into this sashays Zanna, in a grey and pink tux… and is immediately the outcast, for he is (gasp) gay. But the attitudes change, and soon everyone is singing about how all love must be accepted (and Zanna finds a guy for himself, Tank).

As I noted above, Chromolume’s production was developed under some tight restrictions of budget, at a time where there theatre had some existential issues of its own.  This surely impacted the development and rehearsal process, and the theatre has done a remarkable job when these limitations are taken into account. It also surely impacted the cast available. Looking at the overall picture, the direction and realization of the story by Lauren J. Peters (FB) worked well. My only quibble was whether the characterization of the gay characters was a bit over the top, but it is also possible that is how the script directs things to be. This got a lot of laughter from the audience, but you want that laughter to be for the right reason. One wonders (assuming it isn’t in the script) how it might play if the actors did it more (pardon the expession) straight, and how that might color their reception and perception of the story. One other directoral comment, as the problem was common across a number of performers: the authors crammed a lot of words into fast songs, meaning extra attention needs to be paid to both enunciation and projection if the audience is to make them out.

⇒ [ETA: Chromolume has posted a Facebook album of pictures of the actors in the show. ]

Turning to the individual performances: In the lead position was Jason Bornstein (FB) as Zanna. To my eyes, Bornstein had the wrong look for Zanna, but in small theatres you get what the casting process brings. Setting aside my look biases for the role, Bornstein gave his all in the performance, and exhibited some wonderful comic improvisation when the jukebox prop failed to stand up on its own. His singing was good (and stronger in the second act), and I found his emotional expression in the second act quite good. Zanna is a difficult role to get right: you need to be playful and magical without being overly over-the-top, and you need to balance a meddling exterior that is not too annoying with a sensitive core that the exterior is hiding. Bornstein came pretty close to getting that right.

The other two lead characters were Jacob Zelonky (FB) as Steve (as well as Officer Klotsky in the opening number) and Jillian Easton (FB) as Kate. Zelonky did a great job with Steve, especially when you consider that he is only a high-school senior. He nailed the singing and the emotion of the performance. You could get a sense that he was a little less comfortable on the dancing, but that will come with time (I told him after the show that an audience can always pick up when the actor is having the time of their life performing the character, and this will come through in his dancing as he gets more comfortable there). Zelonky was also an example of the string of small-world connections that happen with this theatre (the first occurred when we saw Prez): he is the son of the director of Life Long Learning at our synagogue (in fact, you can see him at the upcoming Cantors Concert on Feb. 4th), and he is in the same magnet program at Van Nuys HS that our daughter attended. As for Easton, we saw her last in The Count of Monte Cristo – The Musical at HFF15, when I wrote: “She combined her strong voice with a very interesting look and performance, and again was a delight to watch.” The same was true here: a strong vocal performance, strong dance, and strong performance. Just watch her during “Ride ‘Em”.

In the second tier of characters was Everjohn Feliciano (FB) as Mike and Vanessa Magula (FB) as Roberta. Feliciano was very good at Mike, with strong singing, performing, and dancing, especially in his interactions with Magula’s character in the second act. He was also very good in the “I Think We’ve Got Love” number in the first act, where we really meet the character. However, the surprise of the show was Vanessa Magula’s Roberta. This young woman, in her LA Theatre debut after just graduating UCLA (and not with a performance degree), was an exceptional singer, performer, and dancer. I’m just a cybersecurity guy and long-time theatre audience member, and I hope to see this young woman in many more shows. She has the potential to go far.

In the third tier of characters were Michael Angel (FB) as Buck / Bronco, Lilly Elliott (FB) as Candi / Karla / Loretta, and Ken Maurice Purnell (FB) as Tank / Tex. Elliott seems to have extremely strong comic timing and great singing skills — I kept picturing her as a Penny Pingleton from Hairspray — if you get the sense — comic, playful, spunky. She was very fun to watch. Purnell I was less sure about in the beginning: he was one of the folks that needed to enunciate a bit better during his fast songs in order for the audience to pick up all the words. However, in his closing number with Zanna, “Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall In Love”, he just blew me away with the quality of his singing. I look forward to his getting the whole package together and appearing in more LA shows. Angel was a bit more comic in his performance, with good singing and dancing. The three got a chance to shine in one of my favorite numbers from the show, “Fast”. In this number, Elliott was a particular standout in her ability to keep up with the extremely fast and tricky lyrics while preserving the ability to hear them cleanly.

Rounding out the cast was Lauren J. Peters (FB) providing the voiceovers for Principal Cooper. The understudies were Christopher Tiernan (FB) for Steve, Amy Segal (FB) for Kate, and James Esposito (FB) as Principal Cooper.

Choreography was by Michael Marchak (FB), with musical direction by Daniel Yokomizo (FB), who also lead the Heartsville High Band consisting of Daniel Yokomizo (FB) [Piano], John A. Graves [Bass], Anthony Jones (FB) [Drums], and Jeff Fish (FB) [Drums]. The dance numbers and movements were reasonably good, particularly in the “Fast” and “Ride ‘Em” numbers. Musical quality was good, although at times it overpowered the singers. It is unclear if that is a problem with the music, or the fact that singers don’t project as strongly these days, depending more on microphones.

Speaking of microphones, let’s turn to the technical and creative production side of things. The sound design by James Esposito (FB) was good, but was plagued by numerous execution pops, balance, static, and drop problems. I made a comment during intermission, and I now know the theatre is working on it (so it will hopefully get better). The lighting design by Richard Fong (FB) worked reasonably well to establish the mood. As noted earlier, Lauren J. Peters (FB) scenic design was clearly budget limited (especially when compared to WCE), but she did a very good job within that budget. It made me realize we were spoiled with the fully realized designs we saw at places like REP and The Colony; but that theatre does not require fancy designs as the goal is for the actors to create the design in your imagination (yet another contrast with cinema). I think the design here had the proper bones to do that, and the only real problem was the jukebox that couldn’t stand on its own… stand. The costume design was by Michael Mullen (FB), and was suitably high-school-ish. My only quibble was the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” mini-musical and the military costumes — and that’s only because I work with the military daily and know what proper uniforms look like (and that the military costumes would have been very different if the other Michael Mullen did them). But hey, this was supposedly a high-school musical and high-school students would assemble rag-tag costumes like these. Veronica Vasquez (FB) was the stage manager, assisted by Danielle Han (FB). Publicity was by Ken Werther Publicity (FB).

Zanna Don’t continues at Chromolume Theatre (FB, TW) through February 5th. Tickets are available through the Chromolume online store. Use the code zanna30 for 30% off! There are a very small number of tix on Goldstar for a few select performances at 40% off too. The show is fun and well worth seeing. I’d also be remiss in my duties as Past President of the Men of Temple Ahavat Shalom if I didn’t remind you that you can also see Jacob Zelonky from this show at the upcoming TAS Cantors Concert on Feb. 4th.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Zanna Don’t kicked off our 2017 theatre year. Next weekend this continues with Aladdin: The Musical (Dual Language Edition) at Casa 0101 Theatre (FB) on January 21 (my birthday!). January ends with Claudio Quest at the Chance Theatre (FB) on January 28. February 2017 gets back to being busy: with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month. March may also bring Cats Paw at Actors Co-op (FB) as that gets shifted from April. Speaking of April, it will hopefully start with a concert with Tom Paxton and the DonJuans at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB) (shifting Cats Paws to an afternoon matinee that day, or the Sunday matinee the weekend before). The next day brings the Colburn Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The next weekend is currently open (and will likely stay that way). Mid-April brings Animaniacs Live at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB). That will be followed on the penultimate weekend of April with Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB). As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.