“Make ‘em laugh, then make a point!” Borrowing a cultural meme to describe the new musical “The Prom” seems fair game because the show extensively parodies multiple Broadway musical conventions. While the ongoing zany homage succeeds in keeping us entertained, the real achievement is that by the end of the night I truly cared what was to become of the central characters peopling the real town that emerges from the glitz.
This achievement is due in no small part to Caitlin Kinnunen, playing reluctant activist Emma, who gives a performance of such consistent, anchored emotional sincerity and authentic musicality that she succeeds in keeping the entire show from slipping away into silliness. Her opposite number in this effort is the sterling Michael Potts (Mr. Hawkins) as her sympathetic high school principal. Despite what we learn about his character’s devotion to the musical theater, through his touching song “We Look to You,” he is so real and grounded that is almost impossible to imagine that he is actually in a musical (and yet how well he sings!).
Inspired by real-life stories, “The Prom” is set in a small town in Indiana, where a high school decides to cancel the prom rather than allow a young woman to bring her girlfriend as a date. In response, four fading Broadway performers implausibly descend upon the erring school to restore the prom, with the true goal of restarting their stalled careers — the idea is that aligning themselves with a progressive cause will generate positive press.
As one of the interlopers, who totes her two Tony Awards around in her handbag, Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) is the ultimate Broadway diva — firing on all cylinders. In addition to her astute comic timing and breathtaking brassy belt, Leavel skillfully finds the vulnerability beneath the sheen, thus saving her performance from straying into camp. Her sidekicks are the perennially disappointed chorus girl, Angie (Angie Schworer) who has spent 20 years in the cast of “Chicago” and never gone on as a lead. And the flamboyant leading man Barry (Brooks Ashmanskas), who starred opposite Dee Dee in their recent flop. Along with serious song and dance chops, Barry shows us how long the pain of childhood exclusion can linger when he dreams of second chances in a knockout ballad, “Barry Goes to the Prom.” It falls to Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber) — a Juilliard-trained waiter, to attempt an unlikely conversion of the conservative high school students through a rollicking number called “Love Thy Neighbor,” reminiscent of “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.”
Opposing the prom and the efforts of the thespians is Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins, who brings both righteousness and a tenderness to the character), the president of the PTA and the mother of Emma’s closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla). While Emma contends with a town in opposition of her identity, Alyssa faces perhaps the most testing journey in the musical, as she must overcome her parent’s perfectionist expectations and decide who she wants to be — all captured beautifully in the ballad “Alyssa Greene.”
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw is nothing if not a master showman, and he moves the musical along seamlessly, propelled by athletic, syncopated choreography that reminded me of “Fame” on steroids. Still, Nicholaw has the challenging job of allowing the audience to have fun without trivializing the core of the story, with its inescapable themes of isolating cruelty and the potentially devastating effects on young people, which unfortunately are a continuing reality today. But even when the musical feels like it’s veering toward dangerous territory — see the “We Are All Lesbian” T-shirts — it quickly mocks its own crossing of the line. In fact, I preferred its light approach — even its surface-level approach to the perspective of the townspeople — to the self-conscious moral sermonizing of some contemporary topic-driven musicals.
The score, by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, ranges capably enough between old-fashioned show tunes and stirring contemporary musical theater idioms, including Angie’s loopy and disarming Fosse-tribute “Zazz.” At the center of the show is the anthem, “Dance With You,” a song of longing and lament sung by the two young lovers that is genuinely moving in its deceptive simplicity.
And it’s the reaffirmation of our capacity to listen, learn and change that ultimately resonates, demonstrating that there is more than one way to deliver a punch and that musical comedy is more than just laughs.
“The Prom” opened on Nov. 15, 2018 at the Longacre Theatre.
Creative: Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin; Music by Matthew Sklar; Lyrics by Chad Beguelin; Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel; Directed by Casey Nicholaw; Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.
Producers: Produced by Bill Damaschke, Dori Berinstein, Jack Lane, James & Catherine Berges, Nelda Sue Yaw, Natasha Davison, Joe Grandy, Kimberlee Garris, Lisa Morris, Terry Schnuck, Jane Dubin, Rosalind Productions, Inc., Fahs Productions, Seth A. Goldstein, Mike Kriak, Don & Nancy Ross, Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra & Stephen Della Pietra, Cliff Hopkins, Masie Productions, Vivek Shaw, Three Belles & A Bob, Arment-Tackel, Armstrong-Manocherian, Fakler-Silver, Fox Theatricals-Mosbacher-Lonow, Palitz-Stern-Smedes, Nancy & Ken Kranzberg/David Lyons, Larry & Elizabeth Lenke/Elizabeth L. Green, Iris Smith InStone Productions, Kuhlman-Ketner/Wallace-ATxRandomProductions, The John Gore Organization and The Shubert Organization; Produced in association with Independent Presenters Network, Margot Astrachan, Darren P. DeVerna & Jeremiah J. Harris and Reagan Silber.
Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Courtenay Collins, Caitlin Kinnunen, Josh Lamon, Isabelle McCalla, Michael Potts, Angie Schworer, Mary Antonini, Courtney Balan, Jerusha Cavazos, Shelby Finnie, Josh Franklin, Sheldon Henry, Fernell Hogan, Joomin Hwang, Becca Lee, Wayne “Juice” Mackins, Vasthy Mompoint, Anthony Norman, Drew Redington, Teddy Toye, Kalyn West, Brittany Zeinstra.