'Zanna, Don't!' lovable musical about love

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   May 2, 2003 at 10:44 AM
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NEW YORK, May 2 (UPI) -- "Zanna, Don't!," a new Off-Broadway musical, is a thoroughly delightful concept about love in an upside down world performed by the most electric cast of newcomers since "Rent" established itself on Broadway.

Whether this gently satiric show with an original book, lyrics, and music by former modern dancer Tim Acito will have as long a run as "Rent" remains to be seen, but it has hit the theater scene like a spring tonic and is likely to hang in long enough to be a top theatrical attraction of the summer tourist season.

"Zanna, Don't!" (a title spoofing Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetic line "In Xanadu did Kublai Khan...") comes to the John Houseman Theater after a sell-out Off-Off-Broadway run. It is the third musical written by Acito, a recent graduate of Yale with a degree in playwriting, following his adaptations of Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov stories.

The show is set in Heartsville, U.S.A., where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are relegated to a "don't ask, don't tell" existence. If this sounds like a set up for objectionable humor and smirky sexual situations, be assured it isn't. "Zanna, Don't!" is good-natured fun that should entertain all but the most prejudiced theater-goer.

It has in the title role a peroxide-thatched Jai Rodriguez, who played Angel in "Rent" and is scoring again as a gay matchmaker named Zanna who carries a magic wand in keeping with the show's subtitle: "A Musical Fairy Tale." He is devoted to finding the right love for everyone, especially for his friends at Heartland High School.

The school is putting on a musical starring the captain of the football team, which is not unusual considering the student body's sexual inclination and the theme of the student production: the problem of heterosexuals in the military. This gives Acito the chance to write a sad little love duet for "Zanna, Don't!'s" mismatched lovers, Kate (Shelley Thomas) and Steve (Jared Zeus), titled -- you guessed it -- "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

To reveal how Kate and Steve's frowned-upon romance works out would be to give away the show's final twist, but let's say that Acito is realistic enough to pay homage to the world as it really is or might be if there were more brotherly love in the true Philadelphian sense. The ensemble anthem, "Straight to Heaven," describes what such a world would be like.

Acito has written 16 songs in the pop vein, played by a four-man rock band, that are eminently singable and always tuneful. The cast sings and dances with a contagious zest that has more to do with youthful energy and bounce than with art. Director-choreographer Devanand Janki keeps the intermissionless show moving at a dizzying pace suited to its high hormonal drive.

Outstanding in a cast capable of making switched sexual alliances believable are -- in addition to the Rodriguez, Zeus, and Thomas -- Darius Nichols, Amanda Ryan Page, Robb Sapp, and Anika Larsen. Larsen plays Roberta, Kate's girlfriend who ditches her for Steve, a quarterback formerly in love with Mike (Enrico Rodriguez).

Co-designers Wade Laboissonniere and Tobin Ost have wrapped the action in a bon-bon colored production that supplies the show with the kind of visual magic that might have been summoned up by Zanna's wand. It's a show well worth seeing before it takes on the dimensions of a cult favorite and tickets are hard to come by.

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