The bad-boy of Enrico Fermi High School is less than welcome when he unexpectedly returns to school as a revenant zombie in Arkansas State University Theater’s production of Zombie Prom, which opens on Friday in the Drama Theatre at the Fowler Center. After all, Rule Number 7, Subsection 9 of the Handbook of Student Life clearly states “no zombies,” according to the school’s principal, Miss Strict.
Still, Zombie Jonny, who died three weeks earlier when he flung himself into the cooling tower of the Francis Gary Powers nuclear plant in a fit of teenage heartbreak, is determined to graduate and win back the heart of good-girl Toffee and take her to the prom.
“I have to go back behind stage and I have a whole amazing crew that helps me get the makeup on and prepare for that, and it all has to happen in less than 10 minutes, so it’s going to be awesome to see it on stage,” said theater major Zac Passmore, who plays Jonny. He was attracted to the role of the only actual zombie in the story because of its lead vocals — Zombie Prom is, of course, a musical — and the challenges of playing a larger-than-life character authentically.
“If you don’t fully take on the character, and you have in mind, 'This a comedy. I’m supposed to be funny,' then it doesn’t read to the audience and doesn’t seem as funny as if you were actually being genuine,” said Passmore, who previously played a high school student at a strict Catholic school in “Shakespeare’s R & J,” a drama about four students who discover a script for Romeo & Juliet and explore what it means to live in a repressed society.
Zombie Prom also represents a departure for junior theater major Alyssa Burleson who played Miep Gies in The Diary of Anne Frank last semester. She said one of the things she appreciates about this one is the names of the characters.
“Just all of these really fun names, like Candy and Coco and Ginger and Toffee, that are non-realistic, so it kind of adds to that dimension of the show,” she said.
In the play, she grieves for Jonny after his nuclear suicide and before his return from the dead, until her friends lecture her that her grief is affecting her baton-twirling.
Candy is played by senior theater minor Hannah Cummins, who posed for photos as the sweet-natured but nervous nail-biter.
“She has a habit of biting her nails, and she’s a little ditzy — kind of loses focus a lot. She’s a little stupid, if we’re being honest. That’s Candy. She’s a lot of fun.”
Director Lisa Bohn says the play is highly-stylized, as if it was a classic comic book of the 1950’s come to life on stage.
“One of the things that’s really fun is that they have permission to go so far in the stylized direction," she said. "In fact, that is the only way this show works.”
During a recent rehearsal, she urged an actress who had to choose between playing a moment as sincere or cheesy to “go cheesier.”
Bohn also urged the audience to join the fun by showing up in prom wear or zombie costumes, or both. There's also a high school prom-inspired photo set for show-goers.
“I’m really hoping people will have a good time not just watching but also in that full participation mode. So I say zombie and/or prom, bring it,” she said.
Prior to AState’s production, the musical comedy by John Dempsey, Hugh Murphy and Dana P. Rowe opened off-Broadway at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York in 1996 and also appeared as a 36-minute short film in 2006 featuring drag queen RuPaul as Principal Strict.
Arkansas State University Theatre’s Zombie Prom will be staged Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24-25 and Monday through Wednesday, Feb. 27 – March 1.
Tickets are $10 at the door or $8 in advance. Call (870) 972-ASU1, or visit tickets.astate.edu.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.