A Second Chance at Teenage Dreams in The Prom on Broadway
A new musical comedy from the team behind Elf and The Wedding Singer opens at the Longacre Theatre.
Maybe it was the best night of your life. And maybe that fact has faded from ecstatic to tragic as the years have ticked by. The Prom, the new musical by Bob Martin (book), Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics), and Matthew Sklar (music), is not about one of those nights — at least not at first. This is a look at the ritual high school dance from the perspective of an underdog. Now receiving a first-rate production from director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, The Prom has everything you want in a musical comedy: a good story, glitzy production numbers, and a happy ending. Politically incorrect and refreshingly self-effacing, it's the antidote to our ultraserious age.
It's about Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), an Indiana teenager who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom. The PTA, headed by Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins), would rather cancel prom than host a same-sex couple. The sympathetic Principal Hawkins (Michael Potts) thinks that he can convince them to listen to reason and hold an inclusive prom. But a gaggle of Broadway sub-lebrities have another plan: Fresh off their latest flop (a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt), two-time Tony winner Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and one-time Drama Desk winner Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas) smell the opportunity to snag some rebound publicity. Alongside Juilliard-trained cater-waiter Trent (Christopher Sieber), veteran chorus girl Angie (Angie Schworer), and publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon), they descend on Indiana to demand justice.
The Prom is inspired by the real events that surrounded Constance McMillen and Itawamba Agricultural High School's 2010 prom, which were infuriating (I admit to firing off an email to the school superintendent) and did indeed attract a ludicrous amount of celebrity attention. Hundreds of outrages du jour have come and gone since then, so it's surprising to be reminded of this one via the most delightful musical comedy of the year. With loads of humor and heart, The Prom smartly challenges us to question whom our outrage is really serving.
"We're gonna help that little lesbian," sings Barry with a giddy bounce in his step, "whether she likes it or not." Beguelin delivers simple and effective lyrics that feel a lot wittier than they are when paired with Sklar's buoyant music. Beguelin and Martin's book contains plenty of laughs, but it's the performers who really keep us in stiches.
Chief among them is Ashmanskas, who exudes the kind of unbridled showmanship that makes people fall in love with Broadway. His Barry gleefully minces along the border between cartoon and human, the latter coming into full focus by the end of the show. He gives every line and beat something extra, and boy, can he dance.
Leavel fabulously steps into the role of the self-important diva, rage simmering under her stylish surface. Sieber shines in a second-act number about the selective reading of Bible passages, which features the unsubtly pointed refrain, "Love thy neighbor trumps them all." The magnetic and limber Schworer delivers a touching bit of hoofer's wisdom to Emma in her song, "Zazz." Kinnunen sympathetically portrays our protagonist, a young woman who seems far more mature than any of the adults in the room.
Long the reigning king of pizzazz, Nicholaw (who previously worked with Beguelin, Martin, and Sklar on Elf) proves to be the ideal director for The Prom. Whether he's depicting a Broadway opening night, a series of promposals, or a cultural dialogue outside of a convenience store, Nicholaw's production numbers engulf the stage and beam pure energy out at the audience. He also maintains a delicate balance between serious and silly, so that we hit all of the necessary emotional beats without being hit over the head with them. This is still a comedy, after all.
Set designer Scott Pask helps maintain a brisk pace during transitions with a backdrop of rotating vertical blinds. Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman's costumes capture the cultural divide between the Hoosiers and the Broadway invaders. Josh Marquette's too-big-to-be-believed wigs provide an added camp factor, while everything glitters under Natasha Katz's brilliant lighting. The result is two hours, 30 minutes of laughter and light.
The Prom joyfully asserts that we can laugh at ourselves and still fight for what's right, that cultural change need not be a humorless affair. In a time when adult musical comedy feels like an endangered species on Broadway, the happy warriors of The Prom couldn't be more welcome.