Established theaters in search of a dynamic team to bring fresh energy and ideas to their musical productions need only head over to The Shadowbox on St. Claude.
Director Christopher Bentivegna and choreographer Lindsey Romig are the real deal.
If they can pull off something like the Off-Off Broadway musical “Zanna! Don’t” on just a shoestring budget and guts, imagine what magic they could accomplish if given the keys to a show at Le Petit or JPAS.
Despite dealing with all the drawbacks of limited technical resources and a crowded space, the collaborators stage a sparkling and big-hearted production. Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris’ script isn’t deep, in fact it’s deliberately downright silly, but the gushing showmanship and an enthusiastic, talented cast make that an afterthought.
Telling the story of high school students in an alternative universe where homosexuality is the norm, heterophobia is widespread, and a ridiculously winning song is only a few lines of dialogue away, the young director, doubling as a talented costume designer, is a kid on Christmas morning with a new train set — albeit one with pink cars and powered by fairy dust.
From the second the lights come up on high-note-hitting Joshua Brewer’s joyful performance as gay matchmaker Zanna until the final scene with the indefatigably smiling Lloyd Meekens as Zanna’s would-be-boyfriend Tank singing “Sometime, Do You Think We Could Fall in Love,” we are swept by music director/keyboardist Natalie True and her band from one cheesy stage craft trick to another.
An advice-giving bird on a string, a football that slow-mo drops from the heavens to win the not-so-big game, and a surprise appearance from behind the milk bar in a club named “The I’m Okay, You’re Okay Corral” are only a few of the sleight-of-hands Bentivegna has up his sleeve.
His deep passion for this sort of Mickey-and-Judy type of theater is matched by Romig’s ebullient, snap-count dances.
Keeping her own work tight and controlled, Romig creates a bounce-in-your-seats energy. The school-play-within-the-play number “Be a Man” brings the viewer to attention by continually achieving objective after objective.
More importantly, her choreography also helps advance the story of the forbidden heterosexual love between quarterback Steve (Price Provenzano) and overachieving Kate (Janie Heck).
Pay close attention to the lovers’ interactions during dance numbers before they go public with their secret. You’ll see Romig’s work is slowly setting the table for the shocking reveal.
But for all their gifts as storytellers and theatrical producers, Bentivegna and Romig only make it happen because of a cast who share their gusto for putting on a show.
Along with the aforementioned Brewer and Meekens, all contribute winningly to the spirit of “Zanna, Don’t!”
Both star-crossed lovers convince us their desire is true. Charmingly self-effacing, Provenzano projects authentic anxiety and angst in song. As good as Heck’s voice is — and it’s great — you’ll be particularly impressed by how she uses her eyes to slowly fall for her star athlete.
As Kate and Steve’s jilted significant others, Allie Peck and Larry Johnson provide both heartbreaking vocal turns and some of the funniest moments of the evening.
Their commiseration while sharing a Twinkie is a clinic in using a prop comically without losing the thread of information.
The trifecta of Brian Eric Lugo, Elyse McDaniel and Kali Russell provide the necessary backbone by playing multiple characters, each carefully delineated from the other.
Primarily playing a sweetly harried whipping boy, Lugo also has the best running gag as advice giving cowboy Bronco, and McDaniel makes sense of the upside down world by delivering what could be thankless expositional roles with comic aplomb.
Along with playing the judgmental school busybody Candi, Russell commits show larceny with a series of high leg kicks as the bartender Loretta. There is no other way to properly describe that character except as an Adderall-addled lesbian version of Flo from the TV show “Alice.”
Bentivegna and Romig are now two-for-two as artistic partners. “Zanna, Don’t!” proves their earlier success with “Evil Dead: The Musical” was not a one-off. Producing shows like they’ve got nothing to lose, the duo seems motivated by Zanna’s belief that anything done out of love can’t be wrong.
Let’s hope the opportunities only get bigger.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.