If you’re looking for liberal political correctness in a feel-good Broadway musical, then THE PROM is for you. The book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, who between them have created hits like “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “The Wedding Singer, observes, once again, conventional musical comedy format, this time with a contrived plot and littered with current event politics to which Entertainment Tonight would bring more insight.
A pair of Broadway musical veterans with slumping careers in advancing middle age, diva Dee Dee Allen and (gay) leading man Barry Glickman, face disaster in a bio-musical satire of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. To revive their public image, they find cause célèbre in a high school lesbian barred from her high school prom in small town Indiana. (That’s right. The home state of homophobic Vice President Pence.) Accompanied by a pair of actor colleagues – Trent Oliver, a drama aesthete, and Angie, a blond, leggy chorus girl - the New York quartet in the heartland is seen as carpetbaggers, elitists and phonies. Emma, the high school lesbian, is in love with closeted cheerleader Alyssa, whose mother is PTA chairwoman and Trump-loving conservative. (Predictable?) Havoc erupts. School principal Mr. Hawkins eyes all this with judicial aplomb. He’s been a secret admirer of Dee Dee Allen for years. He’s always played by the rules and never really had fun; Dee Dee never played by the rules and always had fun. You can see where all this will end up even before intermission.
The heart of THE PROM is in the right place. It’s a confirming tale of self-realization and tolerance but the show nearly trips into the incorrectness it makes fun of. The Barry Glickman character prances about and drops so many gay clichés, his character borders on the very stereotype THE PROM’s sensibilities wouldn’t seek to perpetuate. And the Dee Dee Allen character’s attitude We-Know- What’s- Good-For-Them exemplifies precisely This-Is-Why-They-Hate-Us. Like it’s well-meaning characters, THE PROM doesn’t intend to demean or condescend but it does both.
Some audiences and reviewers glide past this subtext because the show is so damn good at fulfilling all the feel good expectations for today’s musical comedy fare. The music by Matthew Sklar (“Elf”, “The Wedding Singer”) is uniformly anonymous but sprightly. The principal players Beth Leavel (as Dee Dee), Brooks Ashmanskas (as Barry) and Christopher Sieber (as Trent) all get to ham it up, especially the wonderful Beth Leavel, who revels in self parody as Broadway diva, she herself having appeared in a dozen Broadway shows before this. Each of them get a star turn in a solo number in the second act, with Ms Leavel stealing the show in the over-the-top “The Lady’s Improving”.
The supporting cast sparkles, too. Emma, played by Caitlin Kinnunen, and Alyssa, played by Isabella McCalla make a lovable, charming pair of high school sweethearts. An unexpected duet in the second act comes when the worldly, sophisticated Angie, played by a sexy Angie Schworer, schools the naïve and rather dumpy Emma in the ways of the world. The versatile Michael Potts as Mr. Hawkins sings a fan’s ode to Dee Dee’s stardom in the “We Look to You”, the most distinctive tune of the score.
The show’s vivacious appeal derives from the signature craft of director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”, “Aladdin” and most recently “Mean Girls”), a master of making strong books soar and mediocre books stay afloat. Here he uses every directorial winking-at-the-audience trick in the book. Plus, he’s immensely rewarded by a hyper-charged youthful ensemble with some of the most energetic new dance routines on Broadway since, well, “Mean Girls” ”. The finale, “Time to Dance”, designed to be a crowd pleaser, delivers. The sets and costumes, though colorful, are a little cheesy but let’s say that’s intentional and call it one big Technicolor Broadway cartoon and leave it at that.
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