Theatre (Vancouver Fringe) review: the central message in Zanna, Don’t! makes it hard to resist

As satire goes, Zanna Don’t! is pretty lightweight, but what it lacks on the satur-scale it makes up for its earnest message of tolerance and some fine performances from this young cast.

Philip Kuligowski Chan in the Awkward Stage Productions presentation of Zanna, Don't! at the 2012 Vancouver International Fringe FestivalFirst, don’t let the title fool you, Zanna Don’t! has nothing to do with that other musical that played Granville Island this past summer or the dreadful 80’s film starring Olivia Newton-John.  Seems playwright Tim Acito had a fondness for the original film and like the mystical muse that comes to earth in Xanadu, his story includes a wand wielding teen matchmaker named Zanna.

Zanna Don’t plays out as a pretty typical teenage love story, but in the world of Heartsville High, homosexuality is now the norm.  In this reverse world it is the chess geeks that are the heroes and the football captain actually wants the lead in the school musical, a controversial show called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” about straight people in the military.  This show-within-a-show becomes the catalyst for an awakening of heterosexuality in two of the students and their “coming-out” as straight.

While definitely a great deal of fun, the playwright very rarely goes deep; think of it as Glee Lite or perhaps what Glee might have been if the Disney Channel produced it instead of the edgier Fox. But where Zanna, Don’t might lack in adding anything new to the conversation around tolerance, this cast of teens makes up for it with genuine heart and some terrific performances.

Philip Kuligowski Chan brings both a solid presence and voice to the title role.  While prehaps more at home with the bubblegum sound of the show, even as playwright Acito dips a toe into his shallow pool of seriousness with “Someday You Might Love Me” Chan sings without irony.

Kenzie Peters as the jilted lesbian Roberta has a wonderful voice easily attacking the variety of musical genres that Acito uses.  Her renditions of “I Ain’t Got Time” and “Watcha Got” are so soulfully delicious that you can almost forgive the silly lyrics.  As the hetero-lovers, Devon Busswood and Connor Roff bring credible performances with a nice connection between them and Stephen Scaccia brings both a luminance to the role and the best voice of the night as chess hero Mike.  Together, these four nail “Do You Know What It’s Like?”, Acito’s most powerful song in both music and lyrics.

Zach Wolfman gives quasi-narrator Tank such a likeable quality you can’t help but cheer when he makes his choice at the end and Alyssa Baker and Michael Wilkinson add great comic relief as the bossy Candi and the nerdish Arvin.  Joined by a solid ensemble (Leila Raye, Jessica Wong, Hayley Perkins and Drew Ongle) this cast excels in the group numbers, including the show’s energetic and more memorable song “Straight to Heaven”.

Musical Director Andy Toth keeps everything tight although sound issues meant the small four piece band (Elisa Money, Vivian Lou, Anthea Feaver and James Marshall) did overpower the actors at times.  Director and choreographer Cara Tench moves things along at a quick pace but is constricted somewhat by the small space resulting in some repetition.

Although Zanna, Don’t! brings nothing new to the the issues of tolerance and acceptance, it is so much frothy fun and with a central message that says by loving yourself someone else might do the same, it is hard to resist.

3 1/2 of 5 Stars Zanna, Don’t
Part of the 2012 Vancouver International Fringe Festival
CBC Studio, 700 Hamilton Street
6 – 16 September 2012

Visit http://www.vancouverfringe.com for exact showtimes and tickets.

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