SELMA – Selma Arts Center’s teen theater troupe is entering its second year and third production, a musical that combines 1950s themed songs with a zombie twist.
“Zombie Prom” is based on John Dempsey's fictional story where students at Enrico Fermi High School are excited about the upcoming prom.
Jonny the rebel meets Toffee, falls in love and they makes plans to attend prom together. Her parents don’t approve, however, and forbid her from seeing Jonny ever again. Desperate, he charges off on his motorcycle to a local nuclear waste dump and returns glowing and determined to reclaim Toffee’s heart. He still wants to graduate, but most of all he wants to take Toffee to the prom.
Adrian Oceguera and R.L. Preheim are co-directing this SACTeen musical. They both say they can see the growth in the young actors and are glad they have a hand in helping them mature in their acting experience, but also have fun.
Oceguera has overseen previous productions of “School of Rock” and then “High School Musical” and said the goal of the teen group is to give teen actors a chance to perform once they’ve outgrown SAC’s Cool Kids but are still too young for the main shows.
“Zombie Prom” offers a combination of music and comedy, Oceguera said. “It’s such a funny show and the music is great. It’s a lot of throwback to Frankie Valli and doo-wop kind of stuff, plus the early rock and roll really shines through in different parts of the soundtrack.”
The four main characters - Jonny, Toffee, Miss Strict and Eddie Flagrante - are all played by young women, three of whom are returning performers.
“The performers playing these lead roles as men, they’ve never been given that opportunity, so it’s actually proving to be very challenging, despite the fact they have a lot on their resume and a lot of experience,” Oceguera said. “That’s the point of this program: to help them grow into well-rounded performers. I like that.”
In “Zombie,” there are 21 actors ranging in age from 12 through 19. Some come from Reedley, Clovis, Fresno and Hanford, with nearly half of the performers coming from Selma.
“The one thing I can tell is every single performer loves what they’re doing on stage. They don’t have to go off to Broadway [but] they can fulfill their passion and I think a lot of them are doing that right now. We have some first-timers and maybe it grows into a passion. If we can be the reason that sprouted, then I’m all for it.”
Co-director Preheim said he’s worked on a different production of “Zombie” and is passionate about the show. He started out as an acting coach for this show and is focusing the actors’ attention on analyzing the script to help them give their strongest performance.
“A lot of the things they should invest in are coming from the script. How does my character feel in this scene? Well, what does the script say? Analyzing those and the tracks of emotion give them a clearer ground plan for how they should act out the scene. It makes it more fun and easier for them to do those sorts of things. That’s the more difficult part of theater.”
Preheim said while he does want the young actors to enjoy the entire process, as directors they also want to stage a professional show and pass on skills that will help them grow as actors.
“I try to enforce that acting is a craft and something you learn and can get better at, not something that’s innate. They can definitely take strides to progress as an actor and as a performer just by doing the ground work and doing some of the stuff that might not seem as fun, but makes their performance all the more fun and intriguing.”
Preheim describes “Zombie” as a farce that combines 50s rock and roll with horror movie elements.
“I love horror movies and this just takes all of it and flips it on its head saying look how dumb this is, but look how fun it can be. That’s what got me in love with this show. I’d recorded [“Zombie Prom”] songs for another company in another state years ago and ever since then, I’ve loved the music and loved the script and everything it does.”
Vega Ankrum and Lalaina Rabetsinba have the challenge of taking on two of the lead characters that are male roles.
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Ankrum, a high student from Fresno, portrays Eddie Flagrante who she describes as a “real sleazeball. He’s a reporter guy but he’s kind of a dirty reporter guy. He makes up a bunch of lies.”
Rabetsinba, a Clovis West freshman, has the role of the rebel, Jonny. Adding to the challenge is her character’s transformation into a zombie.
Ankrum said she likes her character, in spite of his seedy ways, and has done research to take on the male persona.
“It’s not very often a girl gets to play this man who’s rich in character. They just have weird different features and different ways to contour.”
The challenge is reaching the musical notes intended for a male voice, but she’s challenging herself to do it.
“It’s worth it. He’s a real fun character to play.”
For Rabetsinba, playing the male character opposite one of her friends in the Toffee role was at first giggle-inducing, but now she’s focused to transform into the character. She had to rethink even her body movements to not walk like a girl but instead insert some bravado to portray the rebel more accurately.
“It took me a long time to figure out that I walk with my hips. I didn’t know that personally, so I have to focus really hard and think ‘I’m a man.’ I usually walk with a little pep in my step, but Jonny would walk more like, ‘I’m cool and make room for me.’ It takes a lot of control to focus on that.”
Her character starts out as a typical 1950s teen with a letterman’s jacket, green jeans and fabulous pompadour, but later she transforms into a green-faced creature.
“I like the challenge. It’s just so different and kind of quirky. I really like that about the show and I get to be a Zombie in it. I’m a little bit nervous, but I feel ready. I really do!”
Olivia Hayes, a California State University Fresno sophomore majoring in public relations, portrays Principal Delilah Strict in the musical. She’s the elder member of the cast at age 19 and has played similar roles in SACTeen productions.
“It’s so quirky,” she said of the show. “It’s kind of like ‘Grease’ but with a zombie take. It’s really fun because it’s in the 50’s era and our costumes are going to look amazing. There are a lot of cool concepts that the directors and others in the cast have thrown out there.”
Hayes has been in musicals since she was three and this is her 27th performance. She said what brings her back is the sense of community that’s created between everyone involved in the shows.
“A lot of times, it’s not ‘the show’s over’ and you never talk to them again. The people stay with you for the rest of your life. I love performing and I love to sing and act. It just makes me happy.”
Reedley High junior Richard Avila plays the bad-boy jock, Joey, who he said is “definitely not me.” He’s using acting coaching tips to get into character, though and hopes the audience will be wowed by the colorful set as well.
“With any role I do, I make sure I know the character and how he feels and how he would act. I just play how I think that person would act, the best I can.”