This 2003 show is a result of trying to blend the weird, quirky off-Broadway template that was gaining so much success at the time (think Urinetown or Avenue Q) with the teen-pop musical market that would eventually produce the High School Musical and Hannah Montana franchises. Like those works, it has acquired a strong following among preteen pop-music listeners with little interest in musical theater, but it’s less interesting to seasoned musical-theater fans. This show is a ‘musical fairy tale’ about a world where homosexuality is the norm, and people who are straight are the victims of ‘heterophobia’, which is a clever idea, but also rather gimmicky and potentially annoying.
It might have worked better had the actual writing been a little more witty and quirky, but apart from its subject matter, this is not really any different than High School Musical. The problem is that the approach that works well for a formulaic and deliberately featherweight piece of musical-comedy genre exercise with Pop tunes does not work for a show that is this unusual and has this much inherently serious content, whether the treatment of that content is serious or not. The authors were clearly not up to doing justice to their own idea, and the result is, like The Toxic Avenger musical, an attempt at Off-Broadway weirdness that comes across as far too conventional.
Granted, the music itself isn’t all that bad. Its sugary chipperness can get annoying at times, true, but it’s still catchy and peppy and really rather enjoyable in a bubblegummy way. Unfortunately, the lyrics feature very poor craftsmanship, with an abundance of false rhymes and cliches that mark the show as the sub-Broadway Pop pandering that it is. Still, the score could be salvageable…it’s not really much different than the High School Musical scores, and I can at least see why the show’s following enjoys its musical aspects. But the show handles its material with kid gloves, trying to be ‘nice’ to such a degree than any satire it may have intended is toothless. In any case, any attempt at coherent satire would have been ruined anyway by one of the most ridiculous endings of all time, when the title character ‘casts a spell’ to turn the orientation-flipped fantasy world he lives in into a world resembling our own.
On top of that, the Pop-music-listening teen and ‘tween’ market that the show was trying to pander to isn’t really a Broadway-going audience, much less off-Broadway-going. Like Jason Robert Brown’s 13 six years later, it was trying to do High School Musical in a Broadway venue without ever realizing that there’s a reason the original High School Musical didn’t use that venue, even after it got a stage version. (Granted, Zanna, Don’t opened off-Broadway three years before High School Musical actually existed, but the template was already set by other made-for-TV Pop musicals in that vein like the Cheetah Girls franchise, so the point still holds). This might also help explain why, like 13, Zanna, Don’t failed in New York, but has had a decent amount of success in the regional-theater market.
This show isn’t horrible, and the music does do a lot to help carry it, but it’s still a vapid, Pop-saturated piece of juvenilia with a really irritating gimmick at its center. It says something that the people most likely to enjoy it are those with little knowledge or exposure to ‘real’ musical-theater, and while it has its pleasures, it’s probably best left for them. You could make a case for it as a ‘guilty pleasure’, I suppose, but if we’re looking for ‘guilty pleasures’ in this particular field of Teen-Pop musicals, High School Musical and even 13 actually offer a lot more pleasure in exchange for the guilt.