“A kitschy, campy, rock n roll parody of the ‘Grease’-like musical” is how Maryland native Julia Klavans described “Zombie Prom,” Unexpected Stage Company’s tale of teen love, nukes and anti-zombie sentiment. “It’s a fast-paced, music-heavy comedy.”
Imagine “High School Musical” meets “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”—and orders up a side of “Walking Dead.” Toffee and Jonny were sweethearts, all right, the popular girl and the edgy, angsty, rebel rocker. But a breakup, a change of heart and a close encounter with a vat of nuclear waste change everything: She wanted his heart, he wanted her…braaaaains.
“People latch onto it for its humor, for its ridiculousness and for the catchiness of the tunes,” said Klavans, who plays Toffee. “It debuted off Broadway about 20 years ago, and that production had this cult following. It inspired its audience, like ‘Rocky Horror.’”
Klavans, a Baltimore School for the Arts alumna with a degree in theater performance from the University of Maryland, said that Unexpected Stage Company’s 10-member cast steps up to the challenge of a fast-moving song-and-dance show—but added that “Zombie Prom” isn’t just “Grease” with zombies.
“The funny thing about this play is that there’s only one zombie,” she explained. And that’s Will Hawkins, who plays undead bad boy Jonny Warner.
“This may be a spoiler alert,” Hawkins deadpanned, “but my character, for a very large portion of the show, is a zombie.”
And Hawkins, who grew up in Alexandria and started performing in high school, knows there’s something irresistibly funny in that. “You’re taking a high school and dropping a zombie into it,” he pointed out. “You’d be hard-pressed to not find the comedy in that.”
Hawkins grew up singing, and studied classical voice and dramatic arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And while he recognized “Zombie Prom” as a “loving send-up” of the musical theater genre, he said one of his favorite things about playing Jonny is that he gets to sing a variety of music–like “‘How Can I Say Goodbye,’ this great Elvis-inspired rock ballad. “It’s so much fun to perform, I love the song, love doing it!”
And he loves that Jonny, unlike most zombies depicted in pop culture these days, is as interested in the heart as he is in, well, brains. Jonny, according to Hawkins, “is not an aggressive zombie—he’s a very loving zombie.
“I am not as versed in pop culture zombies as one might expect,” he admitted. “I did research for a show that is campy and fun.
“I looked into ‘The Walking Dead’— there are aggressive zombies, there are shambling zombies, spiraling zombies. Admittedly, my biggest experience with zombies in my own life is a from a game ‘Plants vs Zombies,’ which I have on my iPad.” A device that didn’t exist back in the “Zombie Prom” era.
Hawkins pointed out that in addition to the music, dancing and jokes about the perils of being undead, there’s a message of tolerance and acceptance that’s de rigueur for just about any teen-rebel musical from “Grease” to “Fame” to Hawkins’ favorite, “Hairspray.”
“Some characters don’t want him to be a part of the school, not be a part of their lives because he’s different,” he explained. “There’s a big, broad stroke: people who are different, people who are ‘other’ than you, should have a place in your life.
“You should not exclude people because they’re different.”
Unexpected Stage Company backs up that theme in a real and meaningful way. Half of all ticket sales from the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22 performance will benefit Best Buddies of the Capital Region, the nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The gesture confirms what Klavans sees as the heart of the show.
“There’s something to be gleaned from it,” she said. “Toffee is sort of a spokesperson for tolerance in this parody of civil rights—her journey is one of acceptance.
“In this utopic, ‘Leave it to Beaver’ ’50s world, people aren’t sincerely happy; my character challenges everybody to look beyond getting A’s and going to prom. She gets them to look at the bigger picture.”
And she gets to go to prom. Did Klavans? “You’re asking the wrong girl,” she laughed. “Our school had no social events…We just had, you know, arts classes and rehearsals that went into the evening—which was amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“I’m living out this world and this fantasy that I never had myself.”
The Unexpected Stage Company presents “Zombie Prom” at Randolph Road Theater, 4010 Randolph Road, Wheaton, through Oct. 30. Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to $27.50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.