Only a few minutes after the lights come up, the scene is set: Girls in circle skirts and silk hair bows chattering amongst themselves while boys in knitted sweater vests and Chuck Taylors gather around in woodshop. A principal is heard crisply speaking over a microphone, her tone chilly and business-like. And, of course, the lone leather-jacket-wearing cool guy stands off to the side by himself, planning his next move. If this scene sounds familiar, you've probably come into contact with the '50s-themed hit Grease one too many times. Full disclaimer though: This is not Grease.
Gaithersburg's Unexpected Stage Company recently put on a rendition of John Dempsey's Zombie Prom, a musical that tells an off-kilter version of the story we've all heard, yet kind of wish we hadn't. Toffee (Julia Klavans) is your high school hallmark "good girl," while Jonny "Without the H" Warner (Will Hawkins) is the badass new kid who's ready to wreak some havoc on Enrico Fermi High School. The two naturally fall in love, instantly becoming the most popular couple on campus. Everything is perfect for the lovebirds until super sketchy principal Delilah Strict (Dallas Milholland) steps in and admonishes Toffee, causing her "good girl" senses to kick in and tearfully dump Jonny. Out of anguish the rebel drives his motorcycle into a nuclear waste dump, intending to end his life. Instead he simply comes back as a creature of the undead, wholly devoted to his cause of winning back the girl of his dreams.
The company's rendition of Zombie Prom highlights a rare case in which a show shined while failing to make a lasting impact. There were definite positives throughout the production, yet both the book itself and some aspects of the performance were just off-kilter enough to leave the audience with ambiguous feelings toward the show as a whole.
An aspect that contributed to its semi-success was the inclusion of extremely morbid humor masked as teen-bop fifties drama. As Toffee recounts the night of Jonny's death in the song "Jonny Don't Go," she describes frantically screaming at him to not go to the nuclear plant. This would be a horrible, even gruesome moment in the musical — if she weren't singing it with an upbeat disposition and a backing chorus of adoring friends. The paradox created between the two intense emotions is surprising yet hysterical. It simply begs the question: Should you feel bad for laughing? Probably, but it's pretty hard to resist.
In addition to the dark humor found throughout the plot, the relationship between the drill sergeant principal Delilah Strict and sensational news editor Eddie Flagrante (Joshua Simon) had people chuckling in their seats. Through the first act, the audience became accustomed to Milholland's cold, heartless portrayal of Strict, only to have this portrayal shattered when in the presence of Simon's charmingly seductive Flagrante. No better is this seen than in their duet "Exposé," in which the two recall a lost love affair while partnering in a hyper-sensualized and hysterical version of a Tango. Milholland and Simon displayed undeniable chemistry and charm, making their relationship the most interesting to witness.
While there were definitely memorable moments in the show, the one major flaw fell within Toffee and Jonny's relationship. While Milholland and Simon exhibited fiery chemistry, Klavans and Hawkins, the leading couple, seemed to be lacking some. Of course this could have just been because of the characters themselves; Toffee and Jonny didn't have an intricate or interesting backstory full of mixed signals and unresolved sexual tension. Instead they were simply two high school archetypes, filling the roles of class virgin and rebel-without-a-cause. If the characters themselves fail to convey dimension, it makes sense the actors trying to emulate them struggled to put forth any sort of connection in the relationship as well. Still, when the leading couple fails to grab the audiences' attention, there's a serious problem.
Essentially, Zombie Prom attempts to provide a new twist to a well-known story that's already slightly dissatisfying. While part of the story offers a new comedic tone, the end result is essentially Grease with a couple episodes of The Walking Dead thrown in for good measure — interesting at first, but not all together captivating.
Unexpected Stage Company's Zombie Prom will be running at the Randolph Road Theater until Oct. 30.