theater review

Theater Review: The Prom, Where Theater Geeks Belt Away Without Shame

From The Prom, at the Longacre Theatre. Photo: Deen van Meer/2018

The giddy, smart, big-hearted new musical The Prom has arrived on Broadway after a much-praised 2016 run at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, but really, it’s always been here. Its story begins at the glitzy opening-night party of a self-serious Broadway biomusical called (what else?) Eleanor!–The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical. The show’s stars prance and preen, confident not only in their artistic genius but in the knowledge that they’re nightly “changing lives.” It’s all champagne and finger food and air kisses until—dun dun dunnnn!—the Times review comes in. Faced with a brutal show-closing pan (it even includes that damning favorite arrow in the critical quiver: misguided), the devastated actors need a new stunt: something that will raise their spirits and their profiles. Then, eureka! “I know how we can still love ourselves, but appear to be decent human beings,” declares Drama Desk-winner Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas), whose FDR has just been called “offensive and laughable” in the paper of record: “We’ll become celebrity activists!”

I had already been giggling, but Barry’s fervent resolution—delivered as if he were about to mount the Les Mis barricade—produced one of those cackles that makes other audience members notice me. This particular tree is ripe for shaking, and The Prom sets about its parodic business with mischievous brio and, importantly, real affection. With irrepressibly energetic tunes by Matthew Sklar and winking lyrics by Chad Beguelin (the duo behind The Wedding Singer), and a cheeky, just-poignant-enough book by Beguelin and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone), The Prom has that same lovingly satirical spirit as Chaperone, or as another of Martin’s co-creations, the brilliant Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. Beth Leavel, who won a Tony for her performance in The Drowsy Chaperone’s title role, is doing deliciously funny work as Barry’s fellow narcissist (and star of Eleanor!), an actress called Dee Dee Allen, and Chaperone’s director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw infuses the proceedings with his signature high-energy effervescence. The million-dollar question is: Does the indefatigable ensemble of actors playing high-kicking teenagers down the street in Nicholaw’s Mean Girls dash out of the theater at intermission, borrow a time turner from The Cursed Child, and become the high-kicking teenagers in The Prom in a parallel time continuum?!

No, that would be stealing credit from The Prom’s own indefatigable ensemble, who throw themselves into Nicholaw’s athletic, unashamedly razzle-dazzly choreography with the kind of joyful dedication that can only come from actually having a good time. The teenagers arrive on the scene when the play’s troupe of newly minted actor-activists discover their cause. “Um… poverty?” suggests Trent (Christopher Seiber), a Juilliard graduate who loves name-dropping his alma mater and who’s “between gigs,” working as a waiter at Eleanor!’s opening night shindig. “Too big,” objects Barry. “World hunger?” chimes in Angie (Angie Schworer), a blonde chorine who’s two-thirds legs and has just dropped out of a minor role in Chicago after twenty years of being passed over for Roxie Hart (“You know who they have playing the role these days?” she snarks, “Tina Louise. You know, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island”). “Again, that’s a major thing,” Barry sniffs at her suggestion. “I’m talking about something we can handle… A safe, non-violent, high-profile, low-risk injustice.”

Enter Emma Nolan, played by the wonderful Caitlin Kinnunen. Scrolling desperately through Twitter, Barry, Dee Dee, and company find her story: She’s a gay teenager in the little town of Edgewater, Indiana, and she wants to take her girlfriend to the prom. The local PTA is homophobic but also lawsuit-phobic, so instead of banning Emma from the James Madison High School prom, it’s canceled the dance altogether. “Yes!” trills Barry, “It checks all the boxes!” “We’re gonna help that little lesbian / Whether she likes it or not!” sing the actors, their razzamatazz restored—Beguelin wastes no time rhyming “lesbian” and “thespian”—and so The Prom becomes a kind of Three Amigos meets 10 Things I Hate About You meets just a damn good time. Its trajectory is familiar: Benighted would-be heroes gallop in to save the day, make a mess, discover their actual moral centers in the process, fess up to their initial selfishness, and then we all sing, dance, and love one another a little better. But its tone is fresh and zingy, its characters genuinely laughable and lovable — in part because the performers playing the Broadway babies are smartly poking fun at themselves.

“[They’re] very similar to who we are, with some exaggerations of course,” said Sieber in a recent interview. There are echoes of Alan Rickman’s hilarious turn in Galaxy Quest in Sieber’s Trent, who paraphrases sonorously from Shakespeare and frets, “I’ve played Hamlet! I’ve played Uncle Vanya! And yet I am known only as ‘that guy’ on the beloved ’90s sitcom Talk to the Hand.” (The second sentence of Sieber’s Wiki-bio will tell you that he’s “best known” for playing the Olsen twins’ dad on Two of a Kind.) Trent’s particular fame, resent it though he may, goes further than that of his fellow actors when the troupe reaches Indiana, having hitched a bus ride with “a non-equity tour of Godspell.” Dee Dee flashes two Tonys at the motel clerk in an attempt to get upgraded to a suite—Barry’s also got his Drama Desk award handy, though no one knows what it is—but it’s Trent the locals recognize. “I suppose my artistry speaks for itself,” he sniffs as he takes his room key.

The Prom balances between the misguided (ding!) hijinks of the self-absorbed actors and the real stakes of Emma’s life at school, where the shy teenager is horrified to be the center of attention. “Note to self: Don’t be gay in Indiana,” Kinnunen sings in Emma’s first big solo, the wry and moving “Just Breathe.” Kinnunen is subtly radiant, with a clear, lovely voice and a sincerity that never feels mushy or forced. She’s got a mammoth task on her hands: Be the steady center around which the comically virtuosic Ashmanskas and Leavel—and Sieber and Schworer and Josh Lamon as the actors’ put-upon publicist Sheldon—gleefully spin. She’s got to carry the show while they try to steal it, and she does. I’ve still got “Dance With You,” the sweetly catchy tune Emma sings with her girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) stuck in my head, and the show’s 11 o’clock number, a ballad called “Unruly Heart”—penned, in the story, by aspiring-musician Emma herself—is flush with feeling without turning schmaltzy. Did I shed several real tears in The Prom’s final scene? Maybe I did…

I also seldom stopped laughing. The show is full of witty delights, from Dee Dee’s narcissistic anthem “It’s Not About Me” to Angie’s on-the-money Fosse send-up, “Zazz,” in which she motivates Emma with jazz hands, smoky tales of old Broadway, and the power of her “crazy antelope legs.” There’s also a volcanic eruption of satirical sass called “The Acceptance Song.” When the actors arrive in Edgewater, Sheldon books them the only venue he can find to spread their message of “compassion” to the people they’ve referred to as “those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-humping, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, teabagging, Jesus-jumping losers and their inbred wives”: They’re going to play the halftime show at a monster-truck rally. And since Stephen Sondheim has refused to write them a song, Trent’s had to make one up himself. The actors don yellow t-shirts that read “We’re All Lesbians” and rhyme “bigotry” with “big of me” while kicklining with the non-equity Godspell cast in a dizzing number that feels like an enormous cake with a succession of glittery, well-intentioned, head-smacking theater-people tropes popping out of it. Ann Roth’s rainbowtastic parade of costumes is a trip, and, God help me, there’s even a recorder chorus. How can the good people of Edgewater resist?

Not that everything in The Prom is totally irresistible. Trent’s got a second act gospel number called “Love Thy Neighbor”—in which he inspires Edgewater’s teens to see the error of their homophobic ways—that feels a little easy and unlikely even in the show’s relatively sunny universe. And as the open-minded principal of Emma’s high school, Mr. Hawkins, Michael Potts has to deliver the song that comes closest to cheese, an affectionate chin-upper to Dee Dee called “We Look to You,” about how actors, those noble fantasists, take normal folks away from “the soul-crushing jobs and emasculating pay.” It’s a credit to the rock-solid, appealing Potts that he carries the number off with dignity, and that he even manages to make one of The Prom’s more contrived plot developments—the growing flame between Mr. Hawkins and Dee Dee—feel, if not entirely earned, still sympathetic and sweet.

There’s such genuine joy rolling off the stage in The Prom that you’re ready and willing to forgive it its minor misfires — just as the play’s quartet of hams and egotists are, at last, forgiven and redeemed. “So, is this what not failing feels like?” says a chastened but hopeful Dee Dee to Barry before the finale. “I think so, yeah,” her friend and fellow former-narcissist replies. The Prom merrily skewers compassion-as-fashion-statement, but it’s got plenty of real compassion keeping it afloat. It’s big silly fun, with a sly wink and a warm heart.

The Prom is at the Longacre Theatre.

Theater: The Prom, Where Theater Geeks Belt Without Shame