Welcome to the world where gay is the new straight

ZannaBy Richard Ades

Sean Felder seems a bit miscast as Steve, the football star in Zanna, Don’t! He sings and acts just fine, but the gridiron doesn’t usually attract guys with such a slight build.

Then again, there’s nothing usual about the world portrayed in Tim Acito’s “musical fairy tale.” It’s set at Heartsville High School, where being gay is the norm and being hetero is so unheard of that the head of the drama club is scandalized when a member suggests doing a musical about straight people.

Just as unconventional is the students’ attitude toward extracurricular activities. Though Steve is such a talented jock that he wins a game by actually passing the ball to himself, the school’s biggest celebrity is chess champion Mike (Ricky Locci). But the real key to popularity, as new student Steve recognizes, is joining the drama club.

Obviously, this is the school many a gay student has dreamed of attending. As written and scored by Acito (with help from Alexander Dinelaris), Zanna, Don’t! brings the dream to fizzy, tuneful life.

In Evolution Theatre’s production, director Brent Ries captures the piece’s mood with the help of Shane Cinal’s imaginative set, Danielle Mann’s playful choreography, music director Tim Sarsany’s well-heeled band and, most importantly, a lovable cast.

In the center of it all is William Macke as the title character, a wand-carrying, spell-casting student whose only desire is to hook up everyone with his or her same-sex soulmate. Indeed, Zanna devotes so much time to others’ happiness that he neglects his own. His sole friend is Cindy, an exotic bird portrayed by puppeteer Mike Writtenberry.

Even when trouble rears its head, Zanna does his best to keep romance alive. After Roberta (Tahrea Maynard) learns that girlfriend Karla (Alex Lanier) has been unfaithful, Zanna immediately points her toward Kate (Jordan Shafer). In general, everything is sweetness and light until a girl and boy come to the reluctant realization that they’re attracted to each other. The resulting controversy threatens the school’s loving atmosphere, forcing Zanna to respond with a spell that has unforeseen consequences.

Also in the cast are Laura Crone as the bossy Candi, Brian C. Gray as the put-upon Arvin and T. Johnpaul Adams as radio deejay Tank.

Everyone does a good or better-than-good job on the show’s songs, which represent vintage pop-rock and other lighthearted genres. Though the actors don’t appear to be miked, most put out enough volume to be heard over the carefully modulated band. That’s not to say the show wouldn’t benefit from more amplification, which would add to the fun quotient, but it functions just fine without it.

Despite its satirical, upside-down view of reality, Zanna, Don’t! mostly serves up frothy fantasy. As a theatrical work, it’s about as slight as the build of Heartsville High’s star football player, but its tunefulness and charm make it a modestly pleasant diversion.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Zanna, Don’t! through Nov. 21 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors, $30 for “generosity seating” (second or third row center). 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

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Boyfriend and ex vie for woman’s affection

James Harper, Beth Josephsen and Danny Turek (from left) in Devotion (A&B Theatrical photo)
James Harper, Beth Josephsen and Danny Turek (from left) in Devotion (A&B Theatricals photo)

By Richard Ades

Local playwright Bill Cook has been known for plays about men in nightmarish situations.

In two of his previous works (Love in an Age of Clamor and The Promised Land), the nightmare was mainly financial in nature, but a woman also played a role. It seems that in Cook’s world, as in real life, romantic relationships can be both complicated and precarious.

In his new play, Devotion, those relationships move to center stage. Set in New York City, it’s about Tricia (Beth Josephsen), a struggling artist with two men in her life: current boyfriend James (James Harper), a video artist; and former boyfriend Alex (Danny Turek), an actor.

As the play begins, both James and Alex are sharing Tricia’s loft, but Alex keeps promising to move out as soon as he finds a new place. This irks James, who suspects Alex is biding his time while he looks for ways to con his way back into Tricia’s good graces. And his distrust seems justified, especially after Alex claims he’s met an art buyer who can help boost Tricia’s career.

Who will end up with Tricia? It’s hard to feel we have a horse in this race, as we don’t particularly like any of the characters. However, we may well recognize them, as Cook injects their interchanges with verbal slings and arrows that many will find wincingly familiar. Director Pamela Hill builds on the script’s strengths by encouraging the actors to dive headfirst into their characters.

On opening night, Harper gave the most understated performance as James—to the extent that, at times, it seemed he had yet to fully invest in the character. Turek started out with the opposite problem, overplaying his first scene. Overall, though, he gave a spirited and entertaining interpretation of the glib, conniving Alex.

Even more impressive is Josephsen’s performance, despite an occasional tendency to mumble her lines. Whether Tricia is keeping Alex’s advances in check or greeting James’s pronouncements with maternal disapproval, she creates a convincing portrayal of a woman who likes to be in control.

Though Devotion differs from Cook’s earlier works in some ways—for example, the tone is naturalistic rather than surreal—it retains the previous plays’ cinematically short scenes. This means the action has to stop every few minutes while stagehands adjust Peter Pauze’s appropriately realistic scenery. The pauses would be more of a distraction if the interludes weren’t accompanied by well-chosen mood music.

Another, more unfortunate, way in which Devotion resembles other Cook plays I’ve seen is that its ending doesn’t quite work. At least, it doesn’t quite work for me. At a certain point, two of the three characters begin acting in ways that make no psychological sense. I can hazard a guess as to why Cook has them behave this way, but sorry, I’m just not buying it.

Until the final scene, however, Devotion is a low-key but interesting take on the Battle Between the Sexes.

A&B Theatricals will present Devotion through Nov. 14 at MadLab Theatre, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. 614-441-2929 or ab-theatrical.com.