Here’s what I want in a zombie prom: bogeymen a-boogying; plenty of jazz hands falling off; a Charleston shuffle that’s authentically shuffling, and at least one production number in which the chorus gnaws off someone’s face. Alas, the Zombie Prom that opens San Pedro Playhouse’s main-stage season is more like Disney’s High School Musical, and while it has its charms, the whole shebang registers as a missed opportunity. Zombies and corsages are together at last and yet Dana Rowe and John Dempsey, as composer and wordsmith, seem content to construct a satire of the ’50s that’s as safe and wholesome as, well, the ’30s.
For a musical about zombies, the lion’s share of lurching belongs to the plot. Jonny Walker (Michael J. Gonzalez), a greaser from the wrong side of the tracks, has a terrible break-up with his pretty-as-can-be girlfriend Toffee (Kate Miller). After a motorcycle accident involving some unfortunately situated nuclear waste, Jonny, costumed like a glowing, green outcast from Urban Outfitters, attempts to win back the heart of his girl and attend the senior prom. He is thwarted in his efforts by the authoritarian principal, Miss Strict (Anna Gangai), who soon locks horns — if not lips — with Jonny’s champion in the media, Eddie Flagrante (Steven Bull). Hilarity ensues, though the body count remains sadly the same.
The big loophole in the plot is that it’s never made clear why Miss Strict opposes Jonny’s return to school. He actually seems more obedient and manageable after the accident than before. If Zombie Prom were making some sort of statement about an Eisenhower-era demonization of the “other” (is Miss Strict’s position supposed to represent segregation, à la Little Rock?), then Zombie Prom might have some real bite.
The sole actor who understands that Zombie Prom only works when it’s a little vicious is Gangai, who turns in a marvelous performance as the power-mad basket case of a principal. When Gangai hits her own thigh with a birch-switch and throws back her head in ecstasy, you just know that offstage, in the principal’s otherwise spartan apartment, is a closet full of cats o’nine tails, riding crops, and cattle prods. Steven Bull can’t match Gangai’s polish and joie-de-spoof, so he turns in a performance that’s simply flat in comparison.
As the star-and radium-crossed lovers, Miller and Gonzalez struggle to make their roles more interesting than generic high school lovebirds/necrophiliacs. Gonzalez, in particular, needs to be a hipper, more charismatic presence. Sure, Jonny may be demonspawn, but he’s cool demonspawn.
Christopher Rodriguez’s retro choreography puts the enthusiastic chorus through their paces, and Andrew Henley holds together the mostly pastiche score. The production soars exactly twice: once, during a Gangai-led “Rules, Regulations, and Respect,” a mock-religious revival number which ensures that no non-mutant child shall be left behind; the other is a second-act parody of ’50s television programming, and in particular the uncomfortably close association of art with advertising. (This review is brought to you by Coca-Cola, by the way.)
William Stewart’s impressive multi-tiered set allows plenty of room for the cast to gambol (or shamble) as they will, and Frank Latson co-directs with zest: The entire production is played fortissimo. Speaking of which, opening night’s performance was plagued by difficulties in sound balance — at times, not even a banshee, much less a zombie, could have been heard above the over-amplified orchestra. There was also some painfully out-of-tune singing, particularly in the 11th hour production number “Forbidden Love,” featuring some true diaboli in musica.
It’s heartening that San Pedro Playhouse has taken a chance on their main stage by avoiding the more traditional warhorses and running with something relatively recent and off-Broadway. It’s just that in comparison to other off-Broadway tuners (such as Batboy or Cannibal, the Musical!), Zombie Prom seems a safe choice. It’s inoffensive, sweet, and modest: For a tale of the macabre, what’s scarier than that? •
8 p.m. Fri. and Sat, 2:30 p.m. Sun
Through Oct. 28
San Pedro Playhouse
800 West Ashby