Monday, December 31, 2018

Best and Worst of New York Theatre: 2018

"It Was the Best of Years"
 "It Was the Worst of Years"

I reviewed around 220 shows this year, distributed among four sites, Theatre’s Leiter Side , The Broadway Blog, edited by Matthew Wexler; Theater Pizzazz, edited by Sandi Durell (with great assistance from J.P. Clarke), and Theater Life, edited by Barry Gordin and Patrick Christiano. My lists of the year's best and worst are given below.

Many of the shows listed here have nothing to do with the 2018-2019 season, which began in May and ended in April. A number already won awards as part of the 2017-2018 season. They represent only shows I covered between January 1 and December 31, 2018.

Each show I review is given at least three grades, some getting as many as four. First there’s the thumbs-up or -down system where Samoji, as we’ll call him, offers two thumbs up for shows in the 85-100 range, one thumb up for the 70-84 range, two thumbs neither up nor down for the 50-69 range, one thumb down for the 30-49 range, and two thumbs down for anything below that. Through the goodness of his heart, Samoji gave only two shows (Molasses in January and A Walk with Mr. Heifetz) a two thumbs-down rating in 2018.

If you look closely at Samoji’s shirt, you’ll see he also rates shows by a star system, ranging from one for the worst and five for the best. Thus, two thumbs up gets ***** while two thumbs down gets *.

With one or two exceptions, all shows are also given a numerical grade when the review appears on, where most online reviews are excerpted and numerically graded to provide a composite score, similar to what Rotten Tomatoes does for movies.

Finally, Theater Life has its own star system for which I provide another star grade.

The Best of 2018 lists that follows are based on my two thumbs-up reviews. The Worst of 2018 lists are based on all shows getting either one or two thumbs-down. I’ve added the numerical grades I gave the shows on and used those figures to organize the lists from highest to lowest. The total number of shows graded 90 or above comes to 13. If I were forced to pick the ten best of those, they’d be (based on some after-the-fact reconsideration):

(in alphabetical order)
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Mlima’s Tale
My Fair Lady
Separate and Equal
The Cher Show
The Ferryman
The True
Three Tall Women

The lists are organized as follows: New Plays; New Musicals; Revivals of Plays; Revivals of Musicals.

Some of these may surprise by their variance from other reviewers’ choices best or worst of the year choices, but that’s what all this is about.

Best of 2018
New Plays
The Ferryman 95
Mlima’s Tale 90
The Damned 90
Hangmen 90
The True 90
The Emperor 90
Separate and Equal 90
Feeding the Dragon 85
Admissions 85
Babette’s Feast 85
Balls 85
The Low Road 85
The Metromaniacs 85
My Life on a Diet 85
The Originalist 85
Mary Page Marlowe 85
Teenage Dick 85
Mike Birbiglia: The New One 85
What the Constitution Means to Me 85
The Thanksgiving Play 85
The Waverly Gallery 85
New Musicals
Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin 90
The Cher Show 90
Girl from the North Country 85
Inner Voices 85
Revivals of Plays
Travesties 95
Three Tall Women 90
The Seafarer 85
Our Lady of 121st Street 85
Hindle Wakes 85
Lobby Hero 85
On Beckett: Exploring the Works of Samuel Beckett 85
Revivals of Musicals
My Fair Lady 90
Fiddler on the Roof 85
Smokey Joe’s Café 85

Worst of 2018
New Plays
The Amateurs 45
The Stone Witch 45
A Walk with Mr. Heifetz 45
Against the Hillside 45
Cardinal 45
Good for Otto 45
Education 45
Amy and the Orphans 45
The Hollower 45
The Gentleman Caller 45
Days to Come 45
Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night 45
Hitler’s Tasters 45
Hurricane Party 45
The Property 40
The Undertaking 40
Molasses in January 20
New Musicals
Escape to Margaritaville 45
This Ain’t No Disco 45
R.R.R.E.D.: A Secret Musical 45
Comfort Women 40

Friday, December 28, 2018

Sunday, December 23, 2018

141 (2018-2019): Review: TWO BY FRIEL (seen December 23, 2018)

"For the Record"

Two by Friel, the title given to a program of two substantial one-acts at the Irish Rep by Northern Ireland’s late, great playwright Brian Friel, closed on December 23, the day I saw it. I write this, then, for the record, not as recommendation or warning.

Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly, Jenny Leona. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
“Winners” (here called “Lovers: Winners”) the first of the plays, premiered in Dublin in 1967 in tandem with a play called “Losers.” The program itself was titled Lovers. The work opened at New York’s Vivian Beaumont in 1968 before moving, after 60 showings, to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre to continue its run for another 88.

Each play was about a love affair, “Lovers: Winners” about teens planning to marry in the wake of the girl’s pregnancy, “Losers” about a middle-aged pair. Both plays were written to accommodate a “Commentator” (Art Carney in the first New York version) who narrates information on the action and who, in “Losers,” also plays one of the lovers. The Lovers pairing had one previous Off-Broadway revival, in 2012.

For director Conor Bagley’s current production, staged in the Rep’s tiny studio theatre, only “Lovers: Winners” remains (honoring its 50th anniversary), “Losers” being replaced by Friel’s 2001 “The Yalta Game,” inspired by Chekhov’s 1899 short story, “The Lady with the Lapdog."

In some versions of “Winners,” the role of the “Commentator,” who narrates background material, is played by a single actor (Art Carney did it in the original New York staging) but the Irish Rep uses a man (Aidan Redmond) and a woman (Jenny Leona), sitting at either side of the stage, holding soft-covered manuscripts.

In “The Yalta Game” the characters, Dmitry (Redmond) and Anna (Leona), often serve as their own commentators, revealing their inmost thoughts. Although the plays seem only tenuously related, Bagley seeks to emphasize their thematic relationship by a surprising directorial choice toward the end that forces you, distractingly, to try and connect the dots.

In “Winners,” Daniel Prosky’s spare, neutral set, carefully lit by Michael O’Connor, represents a quiet hillside in Ballymore, County Tyrone, where 17-year-old lovers, the studious Joseph (“Joe”) Michael Brennan (Phil Gillen) and the loquacious, two-months pregnant Margaret (“Mag”) Mary Enright (Aiofe Kelly), have come to study for their upcoming exams.
Phil Gillen, Aiofe Kelly. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Joe tries to study his math but Mag can’t stop chattering. Their interactions, now childish, now precociously mature, now mischievously amusing, create momentary arguments and playful interludes as we delve into who they are and what their future may hold in store. Despite the apparent tensions in their relationship and their being forced by social convention to marry only three weeks from now, they seem deeply enamored of one another, sometimes revealed in Joe’s attempts at comic antics performed to snap Mag out of the blues. Considering the sorrow implicit in his tale of lovers dying before living the life he hints will be theirs, Friel's title of “Winners” reeks of irony.

Every now and then, the Commentators, he with an Irish accent, she with a British one, deliver police report-like details on what is known of this last day in Joe and Mag’s lives, culminating in the details of their deaths by drowning in a purloined rowboat. The more deeply we get to know these young lovers, the more our empathy is evoked by our awareness that their budding lives will soon end in tragedy, albeit one never explained. Despite the procedural-style descriptions, what’s important is not why they died but that they did.
Phil Gillen, Aoife Kelly. :Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Gillen and Kelly give strong, vital performances, even if they’re not—he especially—always convincing as 17-year-olds. Redmond and Leona maintain their professional air but there’s something about Leona, in addition to her angelic beauty, that makes your heart throb. In “The Yalta Game” you get a thorough dose of her magic.

It’s not clear from China Lee’s costumes when “The Yalta Game” takes place, its leading man wearing more or less contemporary casual wear, its leading lady dressed in a sixties-looking frock, the same one the actress wears in the first play. The man is Dmitry, a suave, well-off, graying, Moscow banker vacationing in the Crimean resort city of Yalta, where tourists enjoy sitting at cafes in the town square and people-watching, making up fictional stories about whoever they see.
Jenny Leona, Aidan Redmond. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Spotting Anna, a beautiful, apparently innocent woman he notices with her ever-present dog, he sets out to seduce her, explaining his little game of concocting gossipy, fictional stories as an icebreaker. Though both she and he have spouses and family back home, they become lovers until she’s forced to return.
Jenny Leona, Aidan Redmond. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Unable to dismiss her memory as easily as he has those of other women, even after he’s gone back to Moscow, Dmitry can’t resist tracking Anna down in her home town. Soon, both he and she find themselves trapped by their mutual passion and guilt, unable to differentiate the truth of their affair from the illusion of it (like those stories concocted by tourists), and without a clear path forward.  
Aidan Redmond, Jenny Leona. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Redmond is a plausible romantic lead, charming and physically attractive, and like his costar, adept at using mimic gestures to make invisible things (like Anna’s dog) visible. Leona, though, takes your breath away. Sitting inches away from her allows you to see the subtlety of her emotional truth, the honesty of her tears, the sincerity in her smiles, the affection in her eyes. After hearing her speak with the sustained elegance of a Deborah Kerr it’s a pleasant surprise to find that she was born in Brooklyn, although raised elsewhere. Jenny Leona is definitely someone to keep an eye out for.


Irish Repertory Theatre/Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Closed December 23

Saturday, December 22, 2018

140 (2018-2019): Review: ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 (seen December 22, 2018)

“We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet”

One of a reviewer’s perks is getting not one but two comps to perhaps 90 percent of the shows he or she covers. Seeing a show with a companion and then being able to share reactions to it is a major bonus, even when you and your plus-one disagree. But, as in my case, offering five or six shows a week to a small group of friends can sometimes create scheduling problems and mistakes, on both sides.

Mike McGowan, David Darrow, Sasha Andreev, James Ramlet, Evan Tyler Wilson, Benjamin Dutcher, Tom McNichols, Rodolfo Nieto, and Riley McNutt. Photo: Dan Norman.
This is less significant when shows are second- or third-rate (no one hates missing a turkey) but you never want to screw up when something is as memorable as All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, a choral musical cum history lesson at the Sheen Center’s Loreto Theater.
Rodolfo Nieto. Photo: Dan Norman.
Without going into the logistical details—more complex than you might imagine—screw up there was with the result that the seat next to me remained empty for what I was surprised to discover was, of its type, one of the most special of the well over 200 shows I’ve covered this year.
Sasha Andreev and company. Photo: Dan Norman.
All Is Calm is a sort of jukebox musical, if you will, combining well over 30 songs, unfamiliar and familiar, classic and (at one time) popular, with snatches from letters, documents, and poetry to commemorate an event symbolizing a rare moment of shared humanity under the dire circumstances of war. That was when, in December 1914, British and German soldiers fighting in the trenches of France’s No Man’s Land temporarily put down their arms to join arms for a Christmas celebration, including the singing of Christmas songs.
Tom McNichols and company. Photo: Dan Norman.
Historians, as clearly explained on this site, question the accuracy of the legends that have sprung up about this remarkable fraternization between what were then mortal enemies. All Is Calm itself serves more to romanticize the story of the truce than to question its veracity. Nonetheless, many similar events actually occurred, providing the basis for this exceptionally well-done presentation.
David Darrow. Photo: Dan Norman.
As this Wikipedia article demonstrates, there have been numerous references to the Christmas truce in popular culture, one being to a 2005 French film called Joyeux Noël I saw not long ago as a Netflix rental. The Wikipedia piece, however, somehow neglects a British, one-man play of 2013 called Our Friends, the Enemy that I reviewed when it played here in 2015. Both pale before the emotional and aesthetic power of All Is Calm. 
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.

I’ll let the links I’ve provided inform those who are interested in learning about the fascinating historical details. Here let me note simply that All Is Calm was created by Peter Rothstein in 2007 and premiered under his direction at Minneapolis’s Pantages Theater, where it subsequently was produced each December as a Theater Latté Da Production.
Benjamin Dutcher and company. Photo: Dan Norman.
It’s divided into seven sections called “Prologue,” “The Optimistic Departure,” “The Grim Reality,” “Christmas,” “The Truce,” “The Return to Battle,” and “Epilogue.” Ten first-rate actor-singers, dressed in an assortment of uniforms (designed by Trevor Bowen) representing different British branches are involved. These uniforms, when worn with those pointy Bosch helmets, also serve for the Germans. The company gives remarkably harmonious voice to song after song, with Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach’s exquisite arrangements performed under Lichte’s musical direction. They also deliver their spoken lines with truth and theatrical force.
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.
Until you hear several actors speaking in American accents at the end, you’d be hard pressed not to believe this is a British company, each performer using one or another authentic-sounding accent, including Scottish, with German thrown in when needed. The narrative is mainly in the form of quotes recited as such from contemporary writings, most of them concluded by the speaker announcing his rank, company, and name. Now and then a familiar name associated with World War I is heard, like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, not to mention Winston Churchill.
Evan Tyler Wilson and company. Photo: Dan Norman,
There are no continuing “characters,” only individuals who fade in and out to say their lines and then join the chorus before appearing as someone else. Music is almost continuous, with choral background singing or humming behind the speeches. The set is merely an arrangement of wooden boxes, allowing Rothstein to move his ensemble about in gorgeously arranged tableaux, given exceptionally beautiful chiaroscuro lighting by Marcus Dillard.
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.
You can, of course, expect to hear old-time ditties like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles” along with seasonal favorites like “Silent Night” (also sung in German) and “Auld Lang Syne” on the English side and “O Tannenbaum” on the German. There are many songs not as well known but all make wonderful, often beautiful, listening, especially as warbled by this gorgeously rich blend of voices, each of which gets solo opportunities. Those that stand out in particular are the fulsome basses of Tom McNichols and James Ramlet and the soaring tenor of Evan Tyler Wilson.
Company of All Is Calm. Photo: Dan Norman.
All Is Calm may not be an accurate work of historical drama but, in around 70 minutes, it expresses how extraordinary it was for anything like such truces to have occurred. It does so in such a theatrically exquisite way that I hope to see it again if it should ever return to New York. And, hopefully, with a plus-one!


Sheen Center/Loreto Theater
18 Bleecker St., NYC
Through December 30

139 (2018-2019): Review: FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE (seen December 21, 2018)

"Those People" 

“African-American woman learns how quickly material success can disappear.” That’s the one-line summation of two-time Pulitzer winner (Ruined, Sweat) Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine given in The Best Plays of 2004-2005 following its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2004. 

Fabulation, however, wasn’t chosen as one of that season’s 10 “best plays,” an honor accorded the previous season to Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. Then again, its excellent revival, vibrantly directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Speedo, Pipeline) at the Pershing Square Signature Center, suggests it may have been a contender. 
MaYaa Boateng, Marcus Callender, Cherise Boothe, Dashiell Eaves. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The word “fabulation” has various uses, including being a literary term for a type of modern novel resembling magic realism and postmodernism. While that doesn’t really denote Fabulation, its writing and performance mix divergent styles ranging from the broadest farce to romantic realism, with large dollops of direct address narration by its heroine. 

Another meaning is “to tell invented stories; create fables or stories filled with fantasy.” Fabulation is, indeed, about a woman who, essentially, has invented herself, and thus her own story, but that’s the limit to what might be called its fantasy. Helping her tell the story are 24 characters played by an ensemble of eight actors. The costume and wig crews deserve a shout out for their well-oiled efficiency. 
J. Bernard Calloway, Cerise Boothe. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Fabulation begins in in the fancy office of Undine Barnes Calles (Cherise Boothe, Ruined, in the role originated by Charlayne Woodard), a glamorous, 37-year-old, superpowered, public relations executive dressed to slaughter in a dazzling gold lamé jacket. As the head of a boutique firm catering to “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche,” she’s egotistic, aggressively bossy, and speaks with an affected accent.

But Undine is in for a kick in her tailored black slacks when she learns from her accountant (Dashiell Eaves) that her sleek, Argentinian husband, Hervé (Ian Lassiter), who married her to acquire a green card, has “absconded” with all their money. Just as bad is the arrival of the FBI, suspecting her of identity fraud. Which isn’t far from the truth.

Undine’s persona, you see, is a fiction created to hide her past as the product of what she later calls “those people,” the working-class blacks in the ghetto-like world from which she emerged. Nottage’s comedy follows her “re-education” as she discovers the genuine human being beneath the artificial person she’s constructed.
Cherise Boothe, J. Bernard Calloway, Nikiya Mathis, Marcus Callender. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Broke and, it turns out, pregnant, Undine is forced to move back to her family’s cramped apartment in Brooklyn’s Walt Whitman projects. Her parents (J. Bernard Calloway and Nikiya Mathis) and brother, Flow (Marcus Callender), all of them security guards, are less pleased to welcome her back than her heroin-addicted grandma (Heather Alicia Simms).
Cherise Boothe, Nikiya Mathis, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Tensions simmer—especially with her socially conscious brother, who’s writing a racially charged epic poem—not least because of Undine’s having abandoned the struggling past of which she’s ashamed. In fact, she hasn’t visited in 14 years, and even changed her name from Sharona Watkins to one inspired by Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. 
Company of Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Things come to a boil when, despite her aversion to dope, she’s inveigled by her grandmother into scoring some. This leads to her arrest, incarceration, faked rehab, romance, and childbirth.  
Ian Lassiter, Cherise Boothe. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The episodic action, in two acts lasting about two hours, moves rapidly on Adam Riggs’s flexible set, expertly lit by Yi Zhao, with the many characters clearly delineated by Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes (apart from one overly exaggerated one seen early in the show) and Cookie Jordan’s perfect, character-defining wigs.
Heather Alicia Simms, Cherise Boothe. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Moments of true feeling, even of sentimentality, now and then intrude, but the play’s overall tone is comedy bordering on farce, not something for which the normally serious Nottage is known. Her Fabulation characters sometimes suggest the caricatures in Tyler Perry movies, and many reviews point to the play’s hilarity.
Heather Alicia Simms, Cherise Boothe, Marcus Callender, Dashiell Eaves, J. Bernard Calloway. Photo: Monique Carboni.
If the humor were less cartoonish, I might have concurred with those assessments. Still, I did appreciate several sketch-like scenes, like the one in which Undine runs into a pair of childhood friends (and former Double Dutch champs), whose current status contrasts with hers. Another noteworthy example shows her crashing headlong into the social services bureaucracy, a scene eerily reminiscent of one a friend of mine recently had at the DMV.
Nikiya Mathis, Cherise Boothe, MaYaa Boateng. Photo: Monique Carboni.
There’s no disputing the excellence of the versatile ensemble (which includes a wonderful MaYaa Boateng) nor the splendidly realized Undine of Cherise Boothe. Tall and svelte, she has the right bearing and emotional dynamics as the over-the-top PR powerhouse but also captures Undine’s pride, defiance, and vulnerability after she hits the skids.
Cherise Boothe, Ian Lassiter, and company. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Fabulation is the first in a series of Lynn Nottage plays that will mark her residency at the Signature this season. To which one might say, “Fabulous.”


Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 13

Friday, December 21, 2018

137 (2018-2019): Review: THE NET WILL APPEAR (seen December 20, 2018)

“The Pellowman”

Remember “Calvin and Hobbes,” Bill Watterson’s great comic strip that ran in newspapers from 1985-1995? It’s the one featuring the naughty, precocious, imaginative, yet childishly naïve, six-year-old Calvin, and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. The latter is the kid’s talking, worldly-wise, best friend, even though everyone else sees him as a lifeless toy. It’s a relationship I couldn’t get out of my mind as I watched Erin Mallon’s vaguely titled, sentimental, two-hander, The Net Will Appear, a slender piece at 59E59 that might better have been called Rory and Nard.
Eve Johnson, Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
Rory (Eve Johnson) is a nine-year-old girl whose house in suburban Toledo, OH, is only a few feet from that of 75-year-old Bernard (Richard Masur), a burly, bearded, grungy geezer with a braided ponytail. The upper story of each house (designed by Matthew J. Fick and lit by Justin A. Partier and Jenn Burkhardt) has windows leading onto a small roof-like extension, which the characters use as if it were an unrailed balcony.

Rory has moved in only recently with her mother and stepfather (“bonus dad” is the operative phrase) and siblings. Ignored by her parents, including her real father, she’s desperate for someone to talk to, which leads to her striking up a friendship with the borderline curmudgeon next door. Nard, as Rory calls him, is the kind of guy who sets mousetraps on a tree to catch the sparrows that annoy him. Of course, his problems go deeper, what with his continuing grief over the loss of his own child many years ago and the worsening dementia of his beloved wife, Irma. 
Eve Johnson. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
As the months go by, the garrulous kid—a Jew who attends Catholic parochial school—and the hesitant old duffer—whose chief occupation is sitting in his folding chair and sipping Jim Beam—become mutually adoring pals. Surprise!

She, casually sprinkling her lines with the kind of profanities normally reserved for older characters, and now and then saying unintentionally hurtful things, expostulates on various subjects with a mingling of words and intellectual concepts beyond her years. Many of her remarks are quoted directly (albeit not always fully understood) from her elders. Nevertheless, she’s just as likely to stumble when the playwright strains for a laugh. 
Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
For instance, she announces her ambition to be a choreographer, a dolphin trainer, and a detective, and tosses off words like anthropomorphize; on the other hand, when she first meets Bernard she thinks his name is Great Dane because she knew it was “the name of some awesome dog.” Clunk. Or when Bernard says he’s Episcopalian she tells him it would be nicer for him not to call himself an alien but an “undocumented worker.” Clunk again. Malapropisms, like confusing “flatulence” with “turbulence” or “rumor” for “tumor” are stretches for this apparent whiz kid. And maybe it’s best I don’t describe the bit about her “lady goblet.” There’s so much of such inane chatter, it’s a relief the play ends after an hour and a half. 
Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
At the same time, Bernard, until he gets his big emotional scenes toward the end, serves mainly to correct, advise, admonish, and support Rory's nonstop commentary. In other words, much as Hobbes does for Calvin, Bernard serves as Rory’s dryly sardonic straight man, offering the grownup perspective that Calvin so obviously lacks. Why Mallon finds it necessary to tag him with such unnecessary tics as a habit of saying “pellow” for “pillow” needs a greater mind than mine to decipher.

Which isn’t to deny that there are indeed some clever moments, even if Rory’s verbal skills, interests, and general knowledge often seem to defy belief. There was certainly considerable laughter in the house.

Rory has to be a devilishly difficult part for a child to play and Eve Johnson acquitted herself well enough, speaking many of her (too) rapidly delivered lines from the side of her mouth with a kind of knowing insouciance. As might be expected from a child actor in such a big part, though, her frequent transitions felt as though they’d been specifically requested by director Mark Cirnigliano. Veteran Richard Masur has played overtly gruff but actually warmhearted characters like Bernard often enough so that he need do little more than say the words and we accept him. 
Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson.
The Net Will Appear, whose title is intended to suggest that if you make that leap you’ll always be saved by the net, is a minor time passer. It makes no great leaps, however. For me, the play’s significance lies in reminding me of how much I miss “Calvin and Hobbes.”


59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 St., NYC
Through December 30

Thursday, December 20, 2018

136 (2018-2019): Review: THE PROM (seen December 19, 2018)

“Liberal Democrats from Broadway Go to Indiana”

Last week, my review of Clueless, The Musical mentioned the plethora of other high school musicals filling local stages over the past several years, among them Bring it On, Heathers, Cruel Intentions, Dear Evan Hansen, and Mean Girls, but accidentally overlooked The Prom, which I had yet to see. That delightful newcomer is now bringing its feel-good vibes to the Longacre Theatre following its world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. And while it’s yet another show emphasizing the theme of identity politics, it serves up enough spoonfuls of theatrical sugar to make its medicine go down. 

Like 1998’s Footloose, which concerned a ban on dancing, it focuses on a small town’s small minded reaction to something deemed socially questionable. The Prom, which centers on the controversy surrounding negative reactions to a gay student’s attendance at her high school prom, is inspired by multiple real-life events concerning same-sex students. (Jack Viertel is credited with the concept.) In fact, Vice-President Pence, former governor of Indiana (where the play is deliberately set), noted for his anti-LGBTQ positions, was publicly invited to a performance. 

The Prom is about the storm of publicity raised when Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins, suitably forceful), head of the PTA of James Madison High School in Edgewater, IN, cancels the school’s prom to prevent the lesb Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen, vocally gifted), who dresses in a khaki military jacket and loose flannel shirt, from going with her girlfriend (who, as we’ll discover, is Mrs. Greene’s closeted daughter, Alyssa [Isabelle McCalla, sweetly conflicted]). Some of the details concerning the cancellation may not be clear but it’s not worth bothering your head about them. 
Meanwhile two Broadway actors, the flamboyantly gay Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas, Something Rotten!) and the self-centered diva Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel, The Drowsy Chaperone), have not only just been devastatingly panned by the New York Times for their performances as FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, but have been branded narcissists. 
Anxious to save their careers (as if one Times review nowadays could tank them) by demonstrating their selflessness, Barry and Dee Dee team up with two similarly vain and out-of-work actors, Angie (Angie Schworer, The Producers) and Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber, Shrek), to go to Indiana and resolve Emma’s dilemma. Angie’s a chorus girl who has quit Chicago after 20 years of being overlooked for the role of Roxie Hart. Trent’s a Juilliard graduate (of which he never stops reminding people), once a TV star on a show called “Talk to the Hand,” but now waitering before landing a gig with a non-Equity, touring production of Godspell. 
Joining these self-described "liberal democrats from Broadway" on their mission deep into conservative country is agent Sheldon Saperstein (David Josefsberg, nicely covering for Josh Lamon when I saw the show).

As the plot speeds toward its predictably heartwarming conclusion, we watch not only the romantic complications the situation has stirred up between the slightly butch Emma and the more girly Alyssa, but also the budding love affair of Dee Dee with the African-American school principal, Mr. Hawkins (the affable Michael Potts, The Iceman Cometh), an avid fan of hers.

Each lead gets plenty of singing, dancing, and comic opportunities, and they’re supported by an engaging ensemble playing the school kids and assorted minor characters. Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin’s (Aladdin) formulaic book provides them with engagingly entertaining material, as do Beguelin’s snappy lyrics, and Matthew Sklar’s happily upbeat music.

The numbers that conclude Acts One and Two, “Tonight Belongs to You” and “It’s Time to Dance,” led by Emma and Alyssa, are rousing show-stoppers, but there’s a lot more to enjoy, including Trent’s “Love Thy Neighbor,” whose title trounces the cherry picking of scriptural admonitions, and “Zazz,” in which Angie boosts Emma’s confidence by instructing her in Bob Fosse attitude. 
In fact, much as The Prom is preoccupied with the importance of inclusiveness, it’s also a paean to the pleasures show business and theatre’s value in bringing people together. While the show often spoofs thespian vanity, and there are frequent in-jokes at Broadway’s expense, the music and lyrics express the essence of Great White Way style and showmanship. 
Dee Dee’s anthem, “It’s Not about Me,” offers one view of theatrical life, Mr. Hawkins’s love song to the theatre’s healing power, “We Look to You,” another. Add to this the show biz knowhow of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (who directed/choreographed one of Broadway’s other high school musicals, Mean Girls), including his hip-hoppish dances, and you’ll be charmed by The Prom’s sparkling pizzazz. 
Leavel, Ashmanskas, Sieber, and Schworer comprise as talented a quartet of musical comedy performers as you’re likely to find. The trim Leavel’s brassy, all-about-me persona is spot on, while the chubby Ashmanskas makes his fey gayness hilarious and his gracefully energetic dancing surprising. The burly Sieber is similarly fun to watch and listen to, as is the slender Schworer, with legs that never end, bringing to mind—in the best sense—what Jane Krakowski would have done with her role. 
Scott Pask provides an efficiently serviceable set that allows scenes to roll in and out swiftly, Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman design colorful, character-defining costumes (although those Godspell outfits go a bit too far in search of a laugh), Natasha Katz’s lighting doesn’t disappoint, and Larry Hochman’s orchestrations squeeze the songs for all they’re worth. 
The Prom is both substantial and fluffy, serious yet cheering. Just watch the joyous faces of the cast during their rousing curtain routine to see how much fun they’re having. This is the kind of show that might even make Mike Pence show some emotion. Did I just hear someone from Clueless say “as if”?


Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th St., NYC
Open run