By Martha Bozic
DULOG’s latest musical is different to the other productions they’ve staged this year. Described by its cast as ‘a bit political’, very ‘camp and flamboyant’ and just ‘out there,’ Zanna, Don’t! is a show that makes no effort to conceal its deeper meaning. Set in the fictional American school, Heartsville High, there is one crucial difference: here, homosexuality is the norm, and everyone is heterophobic to some degree. This form of role reversal and cultural subversion may not be a new idea, but effectively explores the issues faced by much of the LGBT+ community, whilst still remaining surprisingly light-hearted and upbeat.
Given the oft-referenced lack of diversity in Durham, there is a risk of preaching to the converted, but director Andrew Shires insists he has no intention of ‘preaching to’ anyone. ‘[The] major difference doesn’t affect [the quality of the musical]’. First and foremost, Shires emphasises that this is a performance that is meant to be enjoyable, and if anything its ‘silliness… makes it more accessible,’ he adds. Concerns that the orientations of the hero and heroine of the story (both straight) could take away from its message are also immediately quashed, with Shires arguing that you ‘have to have a straight character to emphasise the subversion.’
On the musical side of things, Zanna is everything you would expect from a DULOG production. During the run through, people break out into song with only a few seconds warning, and big dance numbers follow with a well-rehearsed ease. When asked for a favourite song, every member of the cast and crew seems to give a different answer. Having heard just a few numbers from their repertoire, I can confirm that this is a testament to the overall quality of the show. On top of this, the ensemble, who have seemingly limitless stores of energy, are regularly seen onstage. Choreographer Louise Webster explains that it is ‘rare to get a musical with so many big ensemble numbers,’ which is one of the reasons why Zanna is such fun to watch.
Despite being set in an alternate universe, this musical is very well established within our own popular culture, so look out for references to High School Musical and Grease, amongst others. The subversion does not end with the characters’ sexuality, however, and Shires happily speaks of how the musical ‘plays so much on cliché,’ although it ‘never goes overboard.’ A highlight is the role reversal of the school’s jocks and nerds. I have never seen a chess match played out quite so flamboyantly, nor heard a chess champion described as a ‘sex symbol,’ but this is seemingly all part of the joy of Zanna.
Another joy of watching this cast rehearse is seeing how well they get on. Their mutual enjoyment of the script and each other’s company is visible as they perform, and the positivity of the piece is also carried offstage. Additionally, the skill shown by every single person in the rehearsal room points to a brilliant final production. Even crew reading in for absent cast members have convincing American accents, and choreographer Felicity Juckes tells of the ensemble learning ‘five dances in four days,’ for what is arguably a ‘very, very dance heavy [show].’
With regards to the set, I am somewhat left in the dark, although Shires promises that it will be ‘colourful,’ with ‘interesting tech.’ Given the camp-ness of everything else about this show, however, I do look forward to seeing what they have come up with. Regardless, the amount of talent in this cast is impossible to ignore and there is no question that a ticket to see Zanna, Don’t! will be very much worth your money.
‘Zanna, Don’t!’ will be performed in the Assembly Rooms Theatre from Wednesday, 14th June until Saturday, 17th June at 19:30, with an additional matinee at 14:30 on Saturday. Book your tickets here.