I'm dating myself here (at least somebody is -- ba dum bump!) but there used to be this TV show called The Dating Game. I would go on and on about it, but I just accidentally deleted what I'd already written, and it was basically a low-tech precursor of reality television where a "bachelorette" would ask questions of three men she couldn't even see (I know!) and then choose one and go on one date with him, which wasn't even recorded or part of the show at all. It all took less than half an hour, no hot tubs, no mansion sleepovers, no roses getting flung around, no strategy or suspense or drunken pooping. What can I say? Television hadn't been invented all that long ago, and we'd watch anything. Unlike, you know, now.
But I thought of this after I had the best time last weekend at a relatively new, small-but-Flubberesquely-energetic off-Broadway musical called Zanna, Don't! at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre. It was so cute and made me feel really special. I couldn't stop smiling -- I'm sure I seemed like a big goof. But mostly all I could think was, "This is so awesome -- I'm so glad I picked it." Because I did. I had a choice.
I've performed grueling self-examination to better understand my thing with community theater musicals. I realize that the vicious circle of huge extravaganzas is fed in high schools, where more students can get involved if there's a big cast and a chorus and a dance corps and a complicated set, and on visits to New York and London and tours to Gammage, where a lot of people happen to see that kind of show and no other, and then small local theaters produce the same shows because people have heard of them and will buy tickets. And then I feel terrible . . . but now I've realized it's just like The Dating Game!
Okay, in this re-creation, my three anonymous bachelors are stage musicals. Zanna, Don't! will play itself, and the other two musicals are a great big thing called, let's say, Phantom of the Producers of Oklahoma, and a second small-cast musical that's very sincere and humorless (not necessarily on purpose), with no confusing doubling or production values, called You Could Be a Fantastic Man in Menopause. (The third guy is a little hard to get a handle on, as you'll see.)
Bachelorette Curtains: If I go to see an amateur production of you (giggles), what kind of evening am I in for?
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ZD: Well, my plan is to keep you fascinated from the very first moment. I don't have a lot to spend on sets and costumes, but I pride myself on clear, attractive choices, thanks to my super designers Terry Helland, Mickey Courtney, and Lia Hunyady, with assistance from the cast. We believe in what we're doing, and everything you see will reflect a focused and intentional minimalism, including helpful color cues for each featured character. Except for Stephanie Coronado's ugly-ass yellow vest . . . We just try to ignore that.
PPO: Um, there's a backdrop . . . I think it's finished, and all the girls have a real costume, you know, a dress that was in a play before that was set in the 19th or early 20th century, pretty much. And we do the entire play, all the songs you know and love. Lotsa work these folks put in! Oughta wrap up in a couple hours or so.
YCBFMM: I make a very strong statement. It should speak for itself. That's what I keep hoping, anyhow.
BC: Okay, then! You're all musicals, I've been told, so tell me a little about your vocalists. I understand you can't afford to pay any of them, so they must really love what they do, huh?
ZD: I am so lucky to have the cast I do! At the max, there are nine people on stage, and I realize you asked about their pipes, which bring down the motherloving house in their solos, but we also have fully staged dance numbers choreographed by Lynzee Paul 4man, who is also one of our stars. And they do everything else, and all these fast changes . . . I'm sorry! I just can't shut up about how awesome everybody is!
PPO: Well, everybody wanted to play the leads, so with all that competition, the ones we wound up with sound pretty good, even though the musical director didn't have a lot of time to work with them one on one, considering, and they have no chemistry with one another or the audience, and they can't dance, really. And then the other people, they're all in the chorus, so I think their hostility and poor musicianship are not all that noticeable. We yell at them a lot, which I think is helping. And some of them are young and skinny so it's kind of fun to watch them dance.
YCBFMM: Not very many people came to our auditions, but that means we're a really tight group, like a family. A family that a few people dropped out of last week. The songs are pretty easy, though. My friend Trish wrote them. But we still aren't sure how many of them we're keeping. This is sort of a workshoppy thing.
Okay, you get the idea, or else I've made you sick. Zanna, Don't!, in a nutshell, is about a town where everyone's gay and there's a guy named Zanna with magical powers who spends all day doing Cupid's good work, making sure people find their matches. (Not to be confused with Olivia Newton-John's character in Xanadu, who was a Muse who inspired a guy to build a roller disco.)
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When the high-school drama club decides to create a controversial musical about allowing heterosexuals to serve openly in the military ("Because if high-school drama clubs don't address this kind of issue, who will?" is a rough approximation of one of my favorite bits of dialogue), the two kids who have to play the boy and girl who fall in love fall in love. Then in dress rehearsal (where director Marcos J. Voss brilliantly has them acting just a little badly, because they're playing high school actors) and immediately afterward, they sing the song that made me cry, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell":
If we parachute into battle and you happen to get stuck in a tree,
then I cut you loose and then run away without telling you it was me,
that is how I'll kiss you.
If we're ever in the same tank or submarine,
and I refuse to share your periscope, then you'll know what I mean --
that is how I'll kiss you.
If I pass you in the hall, and I turn my eyes away;
if I have to say hello to you and I don't say your name?
That is how I'll kiss you.
If I see you, and I sit across the room;
if I meet you in a group of friends and turn my back on you?
That is how I'll kiss you.
I wish our lives could go on
within the confines of this song.
For once it ends, what will be there?
Only the silence I can't bear.
Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris have written a very funny but perfectly enlightening show, and Desert Stages' current production is fierce and committed and will do you a world of good.
Zanna, Don't! continues through Sunday, April 11, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Actor's Café (small house, open seating, no intermission), 4720 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Order here or call 480-483-1664 for tickets, $15 (student rush price) to $25.