Subverting norms with Zanna, Don’t

EAGLE musical challenges perspectives on acceptance

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • March 22, 2012

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The cast of Zanna Don’t! comes together.
The cast of Zanna Don’t! comes together.

It’s a teenage outcast’s dream. Football players are shy, awkward, and misunderstood by the student body. Chess players are egged on by hoots and hollers from the crowd. Homosexuality is the norm, heterosexuality is unacceptable, and love is always in the air. This is Heartsville High, the quirky setting of Zanna, Don’t!: A Musical Fairy Tale.

Zanna, Don’t!, written by Tim Acito with additional work on the book and lyrics by Alexander Dinelaris, was presented Saturday, March 17 in the Semel Theatre by Emerson’s Alliance for Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone. Originally a 2002 Off-Broadway show, last week’s production featured a cast of Emerson students (and one student from Berklee College of Music), with direction by Regina Lutskiy, a junior who studies entertainment marketing.

 “As ridiculous and comical as the show is, its undertones are very profound and address very important issues in today’s society,” Lutskiy writes in her Director’s Note for the play.

The play tells the story of a group of high school friends dealing with the trials and tribulations of love and acceptance. The musical’s central character Zanna (freshman performing arts major Nicholas Brownson) plays the role of matchmaker.

Zanna uses magical powers to bring people together. Quirky, generous, and impulsive, he neglects his own romantic interests to help his friends with theirs. The seeming peace and contentment of the friends’ all-gay society becomes compromised when the Heartsville High drama club unveils a new musical exploring the controversy of straight people in the military. After a heterosexual kiss challenges the characters’ conservative, heterophobic views, their world gets turned on its head. As Heartsville High pushes against new, progressive ideas of love, Zanna must use his powers to fight for acceptance in his community and keep true love alive among his friends.

The concept of a world where homosexuality is the status quo is not new to the Emerson theater scene. Last semester’s annual Emerson Fights Aids Gala featured the debut of the interpretive dance drama Moan for Man, directed by performing arts major Hannah Tehrani. The production was set in a tribal society where same-sex relations are the norm and heterosexuals face persecution.

Much like Moan for Man, Zanna, Don’t! uses its unconventional setting to subvert the heteronormativity inherent in our daily lives.

One scene of the musical, for example, brilliantly satirizes the controversy of gays in the military. The song “Be a Man” highlights the war accomplishments of queer men throughout history, declaring “Alexander the Great/You can be sure he wasn’t straight.” 

The scene concludes with friends Kate (freshman performing arts major Abby Woodman) and Steve (sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major Matt Kyle) realizing their affections for each other after sharing a kiss in the play. They sing the ironically titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a stark lament reminiscent of some of Rent’s sultrier numbers, as they acknowledge their forbidden feelings for each other. Scenes like this display Zanna, Don’t!’s ability to draw attention to serious issues in a way that is both playful and poignant.

“It’s a fun show,” says Dani Berkowitz, the freshman performing arts major who played preppy prom organizer Candi. “It’s important to know that you can have fun while still dealing with a serious issue.”

In addition to social and political criticism, Zanna, Don’t! also explores more universal themes of societal and personal acceptance. Freshman Simone Les, who played “tough girl” Roberta, says that the show’s message extends beyond LGBTQ issues.

“It can be about finding who you are in general,” said the performing arts major.

Freshman performing arts major Pelham Jacobs, who played “stereotypical twink” Arvin, said he hopes the musical impacts those with close-minded views.

“I hope someone who isn’t accepting sees it,” said the freshman performing arts major. 

Brownson, who played Zanna, said that although the Emerson audience is generally open-minded, they can still take important lessons away from the show.

“We sometimes take for granted the idea of being open-minded and accepting to everyone,” Brownson said in an interview. “We expect people to accept us, but we don’t accept them.”