REVIEW: “The Prom” is pure musical comedy gold
Amid branding ventures (“Pretty Woman”, “King Kong”), jukebox projects (“Head Over Heels”, “The Cher Show”), and the sitcom-lite style of “Gettin’ the Band Back Together”, it has been a less than inspiring season so far for new musicals on Broadway.
And so, within that context, I thank the theatre gods for the delicious gift that is “The Prom”—a sweet and subversive original new musical that opened tonight at the Longacre Theatre under the helm of director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“Mean Girls”, “The Book of Mormon”).
Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel and featuring an hilarious book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin and a poppy score with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Mr. Beguelin (the team behind “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf”), this contemporary, feel-good musical delightfully skewers a certain brand of small-potato vanity among Broadway celebrities, using heightened song and dance as a delivery system for telling a heartfelt and humane story about a teenage girl in rural Indiana who just wants to take her girlfriend to the prom.
The show begins on the opening and, as it happens, closing night of “Eleanor! – The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical”, which gets panned by the critics, leaving its abundantly vain diva, Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel, “The Drowsy Chaperone”, “Baby, It’s You!”), and equally insufferable divo, Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas, “Something Rotten!”, “Bullets Over Broadway”) despondent.
At their opening night party turned wake, the pair happen upon Angie (Angie Schworer, “The Producers”), a “leggy chorine” fresh off 20 years in the ensemble of “Chicago”, and Trent Oliver (Christopher Seiber, “Shrek”, “Spamalot”), a waiter and self-serious Julliard-trained actor who won’t let you forget it. Facing well-founded charges of narcissism from press agent Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon), the quartet decide to rehab their collective image by becoming “celebrity activists” and tackling a “safe, non-violent, high-profile, low risk injustice” afflicting someplace in the continental United States that they can drive to; these self-described “liberal Democrats from Broadway” have limits, after all.
A quick Google search uncovers the story of Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen, “Spring Awakening”, “The Bridges of Madison County”), a lesbian teenager in Edgewater, Indiana whose senior prom is cancelled by the PTA when they catch wind that she plans to invite her girlfriend as her date. And so these four self-important “celebrities”, Tony and Drama Desk Awards in tow, descend on Edgewater to make noise and save the day—or so they think.
Complicating things, Emma’s closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), is the daughter of the homophonic PTA head Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins) who is leading the charge to keep the prom heterosexual, butting heads with fair-minded school principal Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts, “The Book of Mormon”), a musical theatre fan who pursues a civil rights case with the state attorney ordering an inclusive prom.
With that set up, musical comedy heaven ensues with each of our Broadway interlopers trying and mostly failing to make a difference; in the end, it is the local kids who have the best strategy. Among the many lessons of “The Prom” is the need for more open communication among opposing groups and, well, the essential role that a drama program can play in a high school. Flipping the script, the show makes good fun of its saviors and their latte liberalism, even if its characterization of the local yokels can be too biting and surface-deep.
Mr. Nicholaw brings his trademark touch to every aspect of “The Prom”, with high-energy dance numbers reminiscent of his recent work on Critic’s Pick! “Mean Girls” (read my review), and well-tuned comedy galore. This is one genuinely funny musical, from start to finish, and as a master for managing tone, Mr. Nicholaw finely shapes the humor and pathos to allow for both grounded moments of humanity and heightened sequences of pure musical comedy joy.
Despite the dramaturgical bona fides that Mr. Viertel brings to the project (he wrote the book on Broadway musical structure), the quartet of Broadway celebrities are not evenly sketched, with nearly all of Angie and Trent’s material withheld until act two (her Kander and Ebb style song, “Zazz”, is a highlight). The supposedly central conflict of the show, whether or not Emma’s school will have a prom, is actually solved midway through act one, removing propulsion from the story until a surprise at the end of the act. Shifting stakes and moving goalposts is frustrating in a musical, the plots of which are usually very simple and clearly defined.
Mr. Sklar’s score, unlike so many of recent vintage, is cohesive and smart, leaning into musical comedy satire for the actors and contemporary pop for the teens. I wish the sound evinced a stronger and more distinct character, but suspect, as is often the case, repeated listening to the forthcoming cast album with reveal what might not be evident upon first listen in the theatre.
It is the caliber of performances from this boffo cast—in particular the principals—though, that forces these faults to fade when considering “The Prom”. As has been consistently the case throughout her career, Ms. Leavel is a knockout star who commands the stage with an infectious ease even when playing the least self-aware character you can imagine. Her act two solo, “The Lady’s Improving”, a pastiche song from the fictional musical “Swallow The Moon” that appropriately mirrors her character’s present journey toward altruism, earned a scattered standing ovation at the performance I attended.
Equally as arresting is Mr. Ashmanskas whose swishy and swooshy Barry becomes a mentor to Emma as perhaps the only openly gay adult she’s encountered in her life. That plotline of intergenerational LGBTQ friendship highlights the remarkable social and political progress that has been made in the fight for equality, but also the continued necessity of gay role-models and support for LGBTQ children and young adults since a fact of being gay, distinct from nearly any other minority group, is that you find yourself a minority in your own family and community.
Through all the mania, Emma’s humble desire to just be recognized for who she is and whom she loves remains the solidly beating heart of the show. Ms. Kinnunen’s sincere and forthright performance is slyly heartbreaking, and her character’s earnest and muted presence essential.
“The Prom” is a good, old-fashioned, heartwarming musical that is wholly original, which means it comes without a built-in audience. A risk, yes, but one that might pay off.
Bottom Line: “The Prom”, a sweet and subversive original new musical, is a delicious gift from the musical comedy gods. This tale of four Broadway performers descending on rural Indiana to help a lesbian teenager take her girlfriend to the prom packs non-stop laughs and high energy dance numbers alongside an important message of inclusion. A good, old-fashioned musical, you can’t go wrong with a visit to “The Prom”.