The good talent is actually better than good. It’s quite impressive. Once again, The Minneapolis Musical Theatre has assembled a terrific, solid ensemble for its latest production. Unfortunately for those players, that production -- Zombie Prom -- is just plain bad.
While they’d like to think of this throwaway musical as a hybrid mix of Grease, Little Shop Of Horrors and Bat Boy, there’s little in the utterly flat score by John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe to excite beyond one or two clever tunes. In fact, I was feeling a bit like a zombie myself, despite a performance time that clocked in at less than two hours (including intermission).
The trouble lies within the ridiculously silly (but largely unfunny) main story line in Dempsey’s haphazardly written book. Set in 1950s Enrico Fermi High, a quick synopsis could be summed up as follows: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl instantly fall in love. Girl dumps boy. Boy commits suicide. Boy comes back as zombie. Boy wins girl’s heart once more.
The boy (Shaun Nathan Baer) here is Jonny, who “got the ‘H’ out of here (get it?!). The girl (Emily Brooke Hansen) is Taffy, who’s been pulled apart from the love of her life by her cardboard cutouts of parents. Both Baer and Hansen, and for that matter the majority of the cast, deserve props for being such troupers in doing their best to make lemonade out of the lemons they’ve been handed. Yet, because of the book, they all remain too one dimensional, which spells disaster when you’re talking about the leading roles.
The only time the stage truly seems alive is when Kim Nevins or Thomas Karski are on it. As the school principal Miss Delilah Strict, Nevins turns what could easily be performed as a one note character into a deliciously hilarious role, inventively milking every possible line to great comedic effect. So genuinely and engagingly funny is her performance that the wind seems to be sucked right out of the production whenever she’s off-stage. But as even she states, it's too little, too late.
The one exception to that is Thomas Karski, who plays tabloid muckraker Eddie Flagrante. Flagrante is ready to use his publication to run the Weekly World News-like story of the high school zombie who’s come back to life. As you may recall from my review of the same company’s revival of Chess, Karski was about the best thing the production had going for it. Here in a marvelous about-face turn, Karski demonstrates amazing versatility and sharp comic timing, alongside his golden throat voice.
Indeed, the most memorable moment of Zombie Prom is when Miss Strict and Flagrante tangle (or is that tango?) in the singular best tune, “At The Dance/Exposé.” For a brief shining moment, irony and nuance are allowed to fully shine through the flimsy script. Too bad the same can’t be said about the rest of the tuner.
Hopefully, the troupe’s next effort will finally enable everyone to sparkle.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).