The cast of ‘The Prom.’ (Photo: Deen van Meer)
By Matthew Wexler
The props department for Broadway’s latest musical, The Prom, better source a larger handbag for actress Beth Leavel, who as the deliciously narcissistic two-time Tony winner Dee Dee Allen, plops down her awards at the reception desk of a rundown hotel in Edgewater, Indiana, in the hopes of getting a room upgrade. As art imitates life, Ms. Leavel’s performance will undoubtedly earn her a nomination, and if Tony voters have a funny bone, a well-deserved win.
This laugh-out-loud moment is one of countless as a quartet of middle-aged New York actors head to the Midwest for a publicity stunt to resurrect their careers after a scathing review of Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical. Dee Dee is joined by her co-star Barry Glickman (a twinkle-toed Brooks Ashmanskas), Trent Oliver (a delightfully self-absorbed and actorly Christopher Sieber), an out-of-work Julliard actor about to hit the road in a non-union production of Godspell , and Angie (a leggy Angie Schworer), an aging dancer who’s just quit a 20-year gig in the chorus of Chicago.
Together, along with press agent Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon) they target lesbian high schooler Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), who’s been refused access to her high school prom thanks to an ultra-conservative P.T.A. helmed by her girlfriend’s (Isabelle McCalla) mom (Courtenay Collins).
As is the way in musical theater, all is eventually tied up in a perfect bow (or in this case, mylar streamers and helium balloons) as Emma takes control of her destiny when the outsiders’ intervention causes more damage than good. Much of The Prom’s giddy success comes from its razor-sharp writing team, which includes a book by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin, lyrics by Mr. Beguelin, and music by Matthew Sklar.
Real-life Midwesterners might have a different take, though. The musical skates on thin ice with broad-sweeping generalizations of anyone who doesn’t live on a coast. Nearly half of Broadway audiences are comprised of U.S. tourists outside of New York City and its suburbs. So when Barry mentions throwing “a real A-level prom, not some half-assed Midwestern excuse with a couple of hay bales and cut-out cow” some may cringe rather than clap. Then again, the recently surfaced photo of a group of Wisconsin teens offering up a Nazi salute is a haunting reminder of the deep-seated prejudices appearing in communities across the nation. So there’s that.
The Prom teaches lessons of tolerance and acceptance through laughter, and the troupe’s narcissism eventually gives way to empathy with the help of the story’s unassuming heroine. Ms. Kinnunen (The Bridges of Madison County, Spring Awakening) is refreshingly honest, carrying herself with heartfelt Gen Z awkwardness while also possessing Broadway vocal chops that will have audiences on their feet.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (whose other teen machine Mean Girls, is playing a few blocks away) is firmly planted in his comfort zone and pulls out his signature “more is more” moves to make The Prom a feast to watch. Nobody gets a hall pass from his super-charged choreography, including the Broadway vets, who keep up with the ensemble of hip-hopping teenagers. Like Mean Girls, much of Mr. Nicholaw’s visual stamp seems to come from the world of competition dance, where real-life teens are popping, locking and pony-stepping their way in communities far beyond the style’s Bronx origin. And much like his work in Something Rotten!, Nicholaw doesn’t shy away from his predecessors, such as “Zazz,” a snazzy jazzy Fosse tribute in which Angie uses choreography to help Emma find her inner strength.
But it is the teen’s own voice that ultimately creates a movement that inspires a statewide prom when she releases an online video that goes viral, singing:
I’m who I am
And I think that’s worth fighting for
And nobody out there
Ever gets to define
The life I’m meant to lead
With this unruly heart of mine.
The Prom dazzles with an array of costumes in metallics and jewel tones by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman, but it is Emma’s final appearance — after forgoing a dress for a tux of her choosing — that makes a lasting impression. She becomes a voice for a new generation on her own terms and her own style, teaching those east coast Broadway folk that self-worth holds infinitely more value than accolades from strangers. That being said, The Prom can expect plenty.
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Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.