John Dudley as Jonny Warner in “Zombie Prom” at Cocoa Village Playhouse
By TERRENCE GIRARD
I returned to the Cocoa Village Playhouse for the first time in a couple of seasons, intrigued by the title “Zombie Prom,” this summer’s final production by Stars of Tomorrow, CVP’s youth training program. It turned out to be a funny musical romp through 1950s’ Cold War paranoia and the era’s “I Was a Teenage …” monster movies.
Set in a mid-America high school named after Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb, the show is a perfect fit for the Stars’ teenaged cast, who embrace their roles with vigor and enthusiasm.
The production is directed and choreographed by CVP stalwart Matthew Johnson, who hits the right absurdist tone and keeps the story chugging along with the collaboration of music director Michael Law and his 5-piece orchestra. They find the fun in the early rock-n-roll score by Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsy (Olivier Awards nominees for scores to “The Fix” and “The Witches of Eastwick”). As choreographer, Mr. Johnson has given his cast energetic, period-rooted dances.
The plot centers on the budding romance between bad-boy orphan Jonny Warner, who’s thumbed his nose at society by dropping the ‘h’ from his name (gasp!), and good girl, Toffee, a lovely high-school ingénue. When the grown-up forces demand that Toffee break up with him, a heartbroken Jonny hurls himself into the town’s nuclear reactor – as despondent teenagers are prone to do.
Given the title, it should come as no spoiler that Jonny returns from the grave, anxious to resume his romance with Toffee, only to have the adult world even more vehemently oppose their forbidden love, what with her being middle-class and WASPy, and him being so … well, rotting and dead. The authors find a lot of humor (and social satire) in the utterly matter-of-fact way the characters confront these very outrageous circumstances.
Kelsey Fout is a sweet-voiced Toffee, pulled by love to defy her parents, principal, and friends, who can’t understand her still grieving three whole weeks after her boyfriend’s suicide. These high school peers are a comical lot, with Rylee Smart’s Ginger a particularly high-voltage hoot.
The adult roles are of course also played by teenagers, which might be distracting were both Hannah Bachman (as high school principal Miss Strict) and Nathaniel Knepper-Quijano (as reporter Eddie Flagrante) not such vocal powerhouses, each knocking their solos out of the park and fully mining the laughs from their crazy characters.
But it’s John (with an ‘h’) Dudley’s Jonny who rocks the show, combining affecting teen angst, swivel-hipped Elvis, and a dollop of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in a performance that shows off all the skill and talent he’s developed in his decade at CVP. (Full disclosure: I enjoyed his performance with no small measure of ‘paternal’ pride, having played his father in both “Peter Pan” and “Ragtime.”)
Overall, the production holds its own against many mainstage shows I’ve seen at CVP. Mr. Johnson might have worked more with the cast on timing their dialogue to the underscoring such that they weren’t quite so often left silently treading water after their spoken lines, waiting for their music cues to catch up – but maybe that was performance adrenaline working overtime.
For a number of the young cast, this is their final Stars of Tomorrow production after having literally grown up in the program. They can journey on to whatever’s next with pride in having capped their time at CVP with such a winning show.
“Zombie Prom” ran this weekend only. Stay up to date on Cocoa Village Playhouse productions by visiting www.CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com.