Zanna, Don’t! review: ‘highly entertaining’

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DULOG’s performance of Zanna, Don’t!, a musical that first hit Off-Broadway in 2002, was the picture of flamboyance, daring to barely hide the socio-political ideas that lurk behind its script. Set in the American Heartsville High, the musical showcases all the classic characters needed to complete a typical high school: the heart-throb, Mike (Matt Jackson), the slightly nerdy boy, Steve (Daniel Booth), the over dramatic girl, Candi (Sophie Forster) and a matchmaker Zanna (Joe McWilliam) slotted into the mix. But it is far from the typical society, with homosexuality portrayed as the ‘norm’ and heterophobia echoed by almost all of the characters, and portrayed outright in their parents. Alongside this reversal comes another inversion, with the chess player being the ‘popular guy’ and the footballer being reduced to an average Joe. Never has a more intensely captivating chess match been seen in Durham.

The cast captured the American accent and energy that the performance warranted from the get-go and introduction of Zanna, the cupid of the high school, brandishing his magic wand. The opening scene saw Zanna in bed readying for a day of matchmaking and creating love for his school mates, portraying the overriding theme of love ultimately being your choice.

Despite the immediately trivial outlook and the tales of high school relationships lasting three days, an important message is subtly conveyed behind the glitter and flamboyance. The message told is that trying to fit into an ideal that society has moulded around you from the beginning is not one-size-only, so to speak. With Zanna, homosexuality is the norm, and the point of contention for the musical is whether straight people should be allowed to serve in the military. To illustrate this, Heartsville performs a production with Steve and the Girls’ Intramural Mechanical Bull-Riding team captain Kate (Ellie Jones) acting as heterosexual lovers. The meta-theatre was brought to life through an impressive mockery of drama, with over-exaggerated roles and brilliant performances from both Booth and Jones to illustrate the play-within-a-play.

Complete with just about as many full ensemble numbers as can be squeezed into a musical, Zanna creates an energetic and lively atmosphere due to the enthusiasm of its cast, with their excellently rehearsed choreography and powerful singing. Alongside the inversion of normal society, fantasy also played a part in the form of Zanna’s magical cupid ability and seeming ability to detect love or its problems through this. This allowed a refreshing blend of fantasy and depth to the plot, so as to remove some of the bluntness of the issues of our own society highlighted not-so-subtly in the narrative.

Although McWilliam’s portrayal of Zanna began a little weaker, he went from strength to strength in the performance, to end up in silver skinny trousers impressively rounding off the show. In addition, Edward Hislop magnificently portrayed the slightly put out and overshadowed Alvin alongside Sophie Forster’s Candi. The top performance of the night, however, was undoubtedly Jackson, bringing together giddiness, over-excitement and sincerity when the moments arose. This portrayal of less dazzling emotions created an accessible storyline, furthering the links to today’s society which the play hinted at.

Zanna, Don’t also provides strong links to today’s society and contemporary issues through the name-dropping of several high profile gay people – including Leonardo Da Vinci and Alexander the Great – illustrating how being gay is the way forward. Touches of Grease and Disney references also acted as a reminder that although inverted, this is our society being reflected at the audience.

Seen through the flourishes are a group of high school teenagers, trying to make sense of love and their sexualities; although the first thing that hits you is the camp-ness of it all, the cast all add another dimension to their characters, letting you in on the naivety seen in high-schoolers and how hard it can be to fit in. Illustrating this is an eclectic mix of musical numbers combining a variety of genres, from pop to musical theatre, and even an excellently performed country number – which if a little hard to fully comprehend, certainly had enough enthusiasm. This was carried off with stunning brilliance by the never-ending energy of the ensemble, bursting to life in every song.

The fast pace of the musical was carefully crafted by the band on stag and brought about through the intensive choreography. With colourful lighting and exotic costumes, this performance was as enjoyable for the audience as for the cast, allowing you to step into their world without any hesitation and be swept away. If you’re looking for a highly entertaining watch head over to the Assembly Rooms Theatre for a fun filled evening of homosexuality, comedy and a tentative skateboard across the stage. This is not to be missed!

‘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.

Photograph: Samuel Kirkman

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