‘Zombie Prom’ at Blank Canvas Theatre Will Leave You Irradiated by a Zany, Fun Performance Do you like to laugh in the face of being nuked? Of course you do, because the very idea is so monumental the only sane reaction, for those of us seated far from the instruments of such destructive power, is to emit a rueful chuckle and hope we wake up tomorrow.
Our love affair with nuclear annihilation and comedy goes back a long way. In 1964, the iconic film Dr. Strangelove gave folks the heebie-jeebies and plenty of laughs as we watched barely functional governmental and military bigwigs stumble their way into Armageddon.
Then 30 years later, the musical Zombie Prom emerged from the fevered minds of John Dempsey (book and lyrics), Dana P. Rowe (music) and adapter Mac Tumminelli. Now at Blank Canvas Theatre, ZP is set in a 1950s town where a huge nuclear plant with its three ominous, smoking cooling towers are simmering right next to Enrico Fermi High School.
This is a rowdy and raucous show that lands directly in Blank Canvas’s wheelhouse, since they love nothing more than mounting outrageous, high-energy musicals about gory subjects. Past productions have included The Toxic Avenger; Evil Dead, The Musical; Cannibal, The Musical; and their all-time fave The Texas Chainsaw Musical. And while there are a couple moments when one might wish for a bit more inventiveness, the show will nuke your socks off with fine singing and a couple memorable performances.
Aside from its location in the backyard of a neutron factory, the high school is pretty normal. There is a loud, harridan Principal Miss Strict and a greaser named Jonny (“No ‘H’”) Warner, a surly kid who shows no warmth except to his best girl Toffee.
Jonny doesn’t give a damn about anything else until Toffee’s protective parents hassle him and he commits suicide by throwing himself into the nuke works, causing a nuclear meltdown and sending Jonny flying. (All the rest of the school is fine; evidently, hiding under your desks during a nuclear disaster really works!)
You would think an event that gigantic would be impossible to convey on a small stage and a low budget. But it is captured with efficiency and wit in the projection design by director Patrick Ciamacco and designer Noah Hrbek.
But never fear about Jonny since, after being buried at sea along with all the other nuclear waste, he returns as a fully irradiated living-dead version of himself—so he doesn’t miss any songs. Disappointingly, he looks just the same as before except for his leather jacket that looks a bit scuffed up and his green face, which looks like he went bobbing for apples in a bucket of green paint.
This is a missed opportunity for the central character of Jonny, who could have returned as a comically bald, flipper-fingered monstrosity instead of a slacker kid who took a half-hearted jab at slapping together a “nuclear victim” costume. In this role, Benson Anderson has a well-studied scowl and a good voice, but he doesn’t display the performance imagination that could make his character truly offensive, engaging, and a gas.
A lot of that slack is taken up by Kate Leigh Michalski as Strict and Douglas F. Bailey II as Eddie Flagrante, an ethics-challenged reporter who gloms onto the story. Michalski dominates the stage and uses her singing voice like a buzzsaw (that’s a compliment) to intimidate her cowering students and a sizable portion of the audience. And Bailey has the polished acting and singing chops to make the borderline superfluous Eddie seem relevant.
Those performers are well supported by actors in smaller roles who keep the energy up in songs such as “That’s the Beat for Me,” when Eddie, the secretaries and copy boys celebrate the glories of scummy, Enquirer-type journalism.
Director Ciamacco, who delivers excellent shows in all genres, has perfect pitch for shows with the words zombie or chainsaw in the title. And you will leave Zombie Prom feeling irradiated by the fun and zest for farcical life that the cast produces.
Zombie PromThrough November 4 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studios, 1305 West 78th St., Suite 211, 440-941-0458, www.blankcanvastheatre.com