“The Prom” is really two musicals in one. One is a funny, knowing backstage comedy, satirizing the self-regard of theater folk. The other is a loud, fast high school musical. What ties them together, somewhat glibly, is a story of homophobia inspired by true events at a high school far from New York.
“The Prom” begins at the opening night party on Broadway for “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical,” which quickly breaks up once the Times review pops up on everybody’s phone: The critic hated both the show and the “aging narcissists” who portray FDR and Eleanor. That would be over-the-hill ham Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas) and diva Dee Dee Allen (usually Beth Leavel, but I saw it with understudy Kate Marilley.)
“Jesus. Was the show really that bad?” Barry asks his publicist Sheldon (Josh Lamon.)
“It’s not the show. It’s you two. You’re not likable….Nobody likes a narcissist.”
Barry suddenly gets an idea: “I know how we can still love ourselves, but appear to be decent human beings. We’ll become celebrity activists!” All they need is the right cause to glom onto. Poverty? World hunger? Too broad. The electoral college? Too boring. They look at Twitter to see what’s trending: “Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.” But then they discover the story of Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), a high school student in the town of Edgewater, Indiana who wanted to take her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) to the prom. The PTA, led by Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins) canceled the prom rather than allow Emma to attend. (Somewhat too conveniently, Mrs. Greene is Alyssa’s mother, unaware that her daughter is Emma’s girlfriend.)
Just as the school’s principal Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), armed by an informal legal opinion by the Indiana States Attorney, is convincing the parents to allow an inclusive prom to proceed, the quintet of Broadway interlopers crash onto the scene unannounced – and make thing worse.
The scenes that focus on Emma and her dilemma, and the songs that Kinnunen sing (“Dance With You” and “Unruly Heart”) are low-key and lovely. The actors ultimately learn some lessons; there is something especially touching about the relationship that develops between Emma and Barry, who was too scared as a gay high schooler two decades earlier to go to his own prom. There is even a line here and there that attempts to offer a larger context; the principal points out the stress everybody in the town is feeling because outsourcing closed down its auto parts factory. But this is a throwaway line in a show in which anything serious is so upstaged that it feels relegated to a subplot. What grabs our attention is the cleverness and the razzmatazz by a group of Broadway pros.
- The inside-theater barbs aimed at the quintet of Broadway characters are in a script co-written by Bob Martin, who has given us such masterful stage spoofs as “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Slings and Arrows.”
- The exciting, high energy dance numbers by the high school students are a trademark of director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who did much the same in the current “Mean Girls.”
This brings up a question that the creative team apparently didn’t ask themselves: Is there much difference between the fictional theater people in “The Prom” cynically using a serious cause to repair their image and the actual theater people behind “The Prom” using that cause to add purpose and heft to a giddy entertainment like this musical? Such deployment would feel even more glib if it weren’t a regular practice on Broadway (See “Kinky Boots,” “Hairspray,” “Mean Girls,” “Summer.” Etc)
Another question that may come up while watching this show: When Dee Dee sings about the “local yokels [learning] compassion and better fashion”
or Barry sings:
We’re going down to where the necks are red
and lack of dentistry thrives…
…is the show making fun of the parochial bigots in Indiana, or satirizing the equally parochial attitudes of the New Yorkers? Perhaps it’s both, but this could be clearer.
Suffice it to say the satire in “The Prom” does not continue the legacy of Jonathan Swift. Its purpose is not to express outrage or change the world (indeed the show roundly mocks theater artists’ pretensions towards changing the world.) The point of “The Prom” is to entertain.
And this, I must admit, it often does.
This feels especially true in Act II when both the ensemble lets loose, and each of the Broadway hams gets a number to strut their stuff. Angie (Angie Schworer), as a long-limbed chorine who’s never gotten a shot at the big time, is wonderful in “Zazz,” trying to inject Bob Fosse’s moves, and his attitude, to encourage a shy Emma
Trent (Christopher Sieber) never fails to mention he went to Juilliard, even though he’s the only one the locals know, because of his role on the TV series “Talk to the Hand!” (the ultimate insider reference: Sieber himself, a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran who studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, is best-known for portraying the Olsen twins father in the TV series “Two of a Kind.”) Here his big number is “Love Thy Neighbor,” meant to stir the high school students out of their bigotry. It includes the hilariously flat-footed lyric:
Here’s what I learned at Juilliard:
Bigotry’s not big of me, and it’s not big of you
And diva Dee Dee delivers a show stopping number called The Lady’s Improving, which is from her very first hit musical, but of course is actually a number written for this musical, and sung to the hilt, at the performance I attended, by Kate Marilley, who took over for a suddenly ill Beth Leavel at the last moment. She was very good, and got a standing ovation – a Broadway cliché, sure, but one that, like the other Broadway clichés affectionately lampooned in “The Prom,” Broadway audiences lap up.
Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel; Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin; Music by Matthew Sklar; Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Brian Ronan.
Cast:Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Caitlin Kinnunen, Isabelle McCalla, Michael Potts, Angie Schworer, Courtenay Collins, Josh Lamon, Mary Antonini, Courtney Balan, Gabi Campo, Jerusha Cavazos, Shelby Finnie, Josh Franklin, Fernell Hogan, Joomin Hwang, Sheldon Henry, David Josefsberg, Becca Lee, Wayne Mackins, Kate Marilley, Vasthy Mompoint, Anthony Norman, Drew Redington, Jack Sippel, Teddy Toye, Kalyn West and Brittany Zeinstra
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including an intermission.
Tickets: $59 to $179