Zanna Don't!

Book, music and lyrics by Tim Acito; additional book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

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This is a High School Musical with a difference. Premiered Off-Broadway in 2003, produced in many theatres across the US and staged by students of the RSAMD at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, it had its London premiere last month in this lively production by Joseph C. Walsh which opened to packed houses at the Space in Docklands and has now crossed town to extend its run in north London.

It's a high energy show that offers a skewed mirror image of Grease and all those American film and TV high school stories. Here the lovers are all gay and homosexuality is the norm. It's heterosexual love that 'dare not speak its name.' Add to this the eponymous Zanna (sparkling Mike Shearer), a sort of Cupid-cum-Fairy Queen with a magic love wand that tells him when romance is going wrong and then helps set it right. "I can't make you fall in love," he claims, "just facilitate," but he's a matchmaker none the less. Since this is called 'a musical fairy-tale' - and the pun is definitely intended - he has an assistant in the form of a tweeting Bluebird (Larissa Webb) whose warbling he can understand.

Don't get the idea that this show is sickeningly twee. Camp yes, but it sends up its campness along with everything else, sugaring the very bitter satire at its heart. These youngsters behave exactly like homophobic bigots in reverse, turning their heterophobia on a boy and girl who find themselves attracted to each other. There's a chilling sequence when the tables turn again - but this is a fairy tale so that's only a brief hiatus in the fun and you can be sure of a happy ending that borrows a glittering lost slipper from the Cinderella story that is Zanna's bed-time reading.

As we progress through the year from its beginning to the final prom ball the underlying anti-prejudice message is a very broad one, but this isn't an acutely political show and its targets are the clichés of homophobia. In its reversals it's the chess champion for whom the cheer-leaders wave their pom poms and it's a given that quarterback Steve, the school's football captain will be in the school musical.

That musical, a show within the show, risks a daring innovation: a boy meets girl story where to general horror they find they are attracted to each other. That casting sparks off repercussions. Mike Cotton and Kate Malyon are particularly engaging as the hetero pair and Michael Stacey and feisty Bonny Hurst equally strong as their same sex partners who try a cross-gender kiss but find it quite repulsive. Lyndsey Orr gets all nasty as the biggest bigot, William Jay Cassidy and Josh Belli make an endearingly oddly-matched gay couple and Gemma Nichols and Justine Marie Mead a female pair with Nadeem Crowe's school DJ Tank introducing the show and having a touching number with Zanna before the upbeat finale.

There are twenty catchy numbers that carry the story and choreographer Philip Scott keeps things almost continuously on the move, including a speeded-up hoedown, a take on ultra-butch military training squads and a delightful number on bouncing space hoppers. The whole cast give all they've got. I defy you not to like it, though that doesn't mean its perfect. A kiddie picture book at teen-age bed-time just seems awkward and, though these are strong singers and the whole cast is miked (is that really necessary, especially in this smallish venue?), they often have to compete with the volume of the band. It is a struggle to catch some of the lively lyrics and they deserve to be heard. None the less, this company of all-rounders give out so much energy that they carry you with them.

At Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 5th July, 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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