Atomic adolescent angst rears its radioactive righteousness in a teenage nuclear zombie! Not a catchy enough hook? Think Grease meets The Walking Dead, but with more dancing and you’ll have the hysterically campy and hell of a good time musical, Zombie Prom now shambling onto the stage of the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre just in time for the spooktacular season of Halloween. Directed by Kristen Cooley with Musical Direction by Michael Tan, this zany feel-good fruit-loop of a 50’s show will bust your gut with laughter, burn your brains with hysteria, and end your evening with a high dose of camptastic craziness. Too good to be missed, this rarely performed musical is just what the seasonal doctor ordered to cure up a case of the autumnal blues!
The scene is 1950-nuclear-something, Russia has the bomb, and we’re settled in for all of the daily chaos of an ordinary day at Enrico Fermi High. Bad boy meets good girl, bad boy dates good girl, bad boy gets dumped by good girl and throws himself into a reactor of nuclear waste to end his suffering; it’s the typical teenage crisis of the June-Cleaver era. Resident Scenic Artist Alan Zemla settles into the simplicity of the show’s location by slathering the in-the-square stage floor with a glossy gymnasium appearance. The lockers and door to the principal’s office are nifty touches to further the scenic experience, but it’s the scaled-down nuclear plant in the distance of the far corner that really brings home the hokey elemental aesthetic— a perfectly matched fit for the content and delivery of the performance— letting the audience know early on they’re in for a good time.
If you’re going to go 50’s, you go big or go home. Costume Design team Robyn Claire, Kristen Cooley, and Fuzz Roark, follow the general rule of the bigger the crinoline the closer to theatrical divinity and do not disappoint in their puffed out poodle skirts and Mary Janes with bobby socks. Warm pastels and spiffy patterns dot the skirts and the bad-boy look of Rebel-Without-An-H Jonny is spruced up by Claire, Cooley, and Roark to really dig into the dirt of the era. The prom dresses are the real dead ringer for fashion fabulousness, perfectly suited for the time period while still possessing just enough lively spirit to have a good time. Serving as the house’s Lighting Designer, Roark rounds out the design fun and washes the stage with putrid ghoulish green right from the downbeat to ooze the notion of the undead into the audience’s psyche.
Director Kristen Cooley understands the hokey and cheesy elements of Zombie Prom, refusing to shy away from the potential to make this one of the most camptastic performances ever. Fully expressing the theatrical hamminess of the piece, Cooley finds those endearing moments of truth— like in “Easy to Say”— and milks them for their comic potential by playing them rigidly straight. Populated with references to every great cult musical that came before it, Cooley finds ways to enhance these moments through her blocking and overall use of the space. Unapologetic for the shtick, which is executed so soundly you can’t help but laugh, Cooley delivers one hell of a great time in this absurdly-premised musical.
Doing double duty, Cooley serves as the show’s Choreographer and really puts the bop in the bop-she-bop-she-bop with these high energy routines. Not only is the choreography energetic and enthusiastic, a perfect fit for the jukebox rhythm of the music, but it is executed cleanly and in a style that makes optimal use of the unique staging arrangements on the Spotlighters’ stage. Peppered throughout with iconic step-and-sweep and arm-sway movements, numbers like “The C Word” “Johnny Don’t Go” and “Good as it Gets” become the iconic hallmarks of a 1950’s musical. Displaying versatility, Cooley finds the old razzle-dazzle of Broadway-style revival numbers in “Rules, Regulations, and Respect” and give it an atomic glow that fits the bill for this laugh-along musical show.
Musical Director Michael Tan presents his superior talents to the keyboard and brings a shocking new life to the score, along with pit performers Greg Bell, Christine MacDonald, and Michael Feathers. Tan’s strongest suit is his ability to blend the 50’s style harmonies that arise in group numbers like “Ain’t No Going Back” and “Where Do We Go From Here?” as well in the more traditional ballad duet numbers like “The Voice in the Ocean” and “How Do You Stand on Dreams?” Capturing these harmonic blends to really accentuate the brilliance of composer Dana P. Rowe, Tan radiates a healthy dose of radioactive verve from his corner in the pit and keeps the music hip and trendy while sounding smooth and blendy.
The sound of the ensemble is strong enough to overpower a wave of the walking dead. This is an impressive feat considering just how limited in physical numbers the group is. Every ensemble number, which is nearly every song in the show, is populated with intense blasts of strong, sturdy and well-tuned sound. This really makes the show enjoyable because not only do they look and move great, but they sound great too. Pop-out cameo performers include the Regina-George-before-Mean-Girls Coco (Emily Biondi), spastic nail-biting Candy (Clare Kneebone) and the lunkhead jugheads Joey (Leif McMurry) and Jake (Adam Abruzzo.)
In a competition of dorky nerdy scene stealing, it’s hard to say who comes out on top when the contestants are as talented as Parker Bailey Steven and Derek Anderson playing Ginger and Josh respectively. Both fit the bill in the looks department, particularly with the massive splotch of tap holding together Steven’s glasses, and both have their little mannerisms that draw attention to their finely-honed characters. Anderson, whose character always knows how to say the wrong thing, is particularly spunky during “Case Closed” where he serves as the mimed stenographer trying to keep up with the banter of the three leads that sing the trio. Steven delivers hyper spastic energy, especially leading into “The C Word” and really makes her character pop every time she pops up with an interjection.
Ruling the school with an iron yardstick wedged right up her backside, Principal Delilah Strict (Kristen Zwobot) lives up to the character’s namesake. With vocals clad in rust-proof iron, Zwobot belts out her ferocious sound to keep order amid the chaos for wildly entertaining numbers like “Rules, Regulation, and Respect.” Delivering an homage to Grease’s Principal McGee with her body language and speaking tone of voice Zwobot settles into the authoritative caricature with great ease. Playing opposite of the surly and edgy newsman Eddie Flagrante (Mark Lloyd), Zwobot holds her own in musical duets and trios like “Case Closed” and “At the Dance.” It’s their duet, “Exposé”— a saucy and seductive tango— with Lloyd’s gritty yet cheeky charm and Zwobot’s blasting vocals and crazy facial expressions that really make the pair worthy of tumultuous applause come time for curtain call.
Sweet and winsome, wholesome and twitterpated, Toffee (Allison Comotto) has all the traumas of being a young high school sweetheart in love. Comotto has a deliciously dulcet voice that sweeps well through the more syrupy numbers assigned to her character. Masterfully moving from melodiously merry to melancholic and morose once Jonny bites the dust, Comotto expresses a fulfilling range of emotional acting, which she intones into her singing voice quite thoroughly. “Easy to Say” is one of the more striking moments amid the delirious comedic musical and Comotto commands the song in a most captivating manner.
When Comotto meets wild boy Jonny (Alex Cecchetti) everyone can hear the bells. The love-struck chemistry that blossoms instantaneously between the pair is as gooey and disgusting as oozing decompositional wounds on a freshly unearthed zombie. “The Voice in the Ocean”, “How Do You Stand on Dreams” and “Forbidden Love” are sickeningly saccharine and equally hysterical as the pair croon and profess their heartsick love for one another. Living up to the heightened caricatures of teens in true love, Cecchetti and Comotto are the perfect pair in this musical.
As rebel boy Jonny, having the nerve to come back from the dead to graduate, Cecchetti owns the role with a vigorously animated spark. Holy moly watch out for this kid as he is a true vocal blast when he rocks onto the scene for “Blast From the Past.” With tremendous sustain in his singing voice and a powerhouse sound that refuses to die, Cecchetti owns this and every number in which he sings. Between the FX used for his facial features and eyes (Designed by Ryan Krasney)— which is perfectly noticeable and enjoyable because of the intimacy of the Spotlighters stage— and his rock-n-roll personality, Cecchetti makes it a hip new trend to be the living undead. Delivering true crooner soul, after a serious of uproarious facial frights during his on-camera moments, “How Can I Say Goodbye” is a wonderful moment of vocal captivation that just pours right into the hearts of the audience.
It’s a show that’s so awesome it’ll wake the dead. There’s no stopping the senior prom, not even death can put a handle on that, and Spotlighters theatre can prove it. Don’t miss your chance to boogie with the batty boys and ghoulish girls of Zombie Prom this autumn season!
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Zombie Prom plays through November 8, 2015 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.