Dead man walking, dating

The Baltimore Sun

Zombie Prom, the new show from Merely Players, speaks to teens, says Artistic Director Beverly van Joolen, "in a kind of High School Musical meets Grease meets I Was a Teenage Werewolf way."

This 1996 musical with book and lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana Rowe is a campy return to the 1950s, but where the prom queen's date might well be a walking corpse. It may sound like a stretch, but the Merely Players cast and crew pull it off with stylish enthusiasm.

Relatively new and unknown locally, the show has the distinct advantage of no overfamiliarity. Although more recent decades like the 1980s "greed is good" period might yield some humor, the '80s are probably as remote as the 1950s to most teens today.

We are introduced to students at Enrico Fermi High, tightly controlled by Principal Miss Strict, who indoctrinates them with the school motto: "Rules, Regulations and Respect."

Miss Strict has zero tolerance for recently arrived orphan Jonny, who spells his name without an "h" and wears a leather jacket -- enough to merit her labeling him a rebel.

Jonny falls instantly in love with preppy Toffee, but her parents forbid her from continuing their relationship. In despair Jonny commits suicide by jumping into a nuclear waste dump from which his toxic body is extracted for burial at sea.

Toffee mourns Jonny for three weeks while being counseled, "Face it, the boy is dead. You'll be a widow before you're wed." Jonny hears Toffee's anguished cries from the water's depth, prompting his return to her and Fermi High.

Jonny soon draws the attention of ambitious reporter Eddie Flagrante, who invites the zombie to appear on local television, where his ghoulish appearance fascinates and sparks sympathy.

Could a dead boy make an acceptable prom date for sweet Toffee? Will Miss Strict relax her rules, and can happiness exist for this now-dead orphan teen come back to ghoulish life?

First-time director at Merely Players Jason Wilson brings this "blissful high school experience" to life with an outstanding cast of performers and the support of musical director Michael Tan and a five-musician live combo.

The show's teen slant prompted me to invite my 16-year-old granddaughter, Marie Johnson-Gomez, and her 18-year-old friend, Mike Stanley, to join in critiquing this show. Marie found it "slow getting started, but the love interest happens too fast." Marie's favorites in the cast included Kelly Garland as Toffee and Kyle VanZandt as Jonny, both fine singers and actors.

Mike, an accomplished musician and singer, called the score "repetitious doo-wop that took on a boring sameness as if it was one long song."

Although Marie found the score mostly unexciting, she singled out two songs she liked, "Ain't No Going Back" and "Expose," a comic number set to tango rhythm. Mike thought Rick Robertson, who plays Eddie Flagrante, was a standout singer.

Both of my guests agreed they had little connection to the '50s and that the dance numbers were "overblown."

The far-fetched meager plot might be described as operatic with love sprouting instantly -- much as it does for La Boheme's Mimi and Rodolfo.

But I thought all the lead actors were outstanding and enjoyed the dancers who covered the Charleston, the Twist and the Monkey, all well rehearsed and well executed with energy and enthusiasm.

Performances continue at the Studio Theater at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday through April 20.

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