“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”?
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