By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Crtic (“Steppin’ Out“)
From the moment of its opening “Changing Lives,” there is a feeling in The Prom that the audience is in store for a good, old-fashioned throwback musical with real toe-tapping numbers and brassy orchestrations.
And they would be right.
Nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical (it won the nod from the Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical) , the show features music by Matthew Sklar and his longtime lyricist Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer, Elf), who co-wrote the book with Tony Award winner Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone).
With its inside look at the narcissistic side of Broadway stars and its ability to poke fun at theatre celebrities who have an agenda and search for a noble cause, The Prom makes the case for acceptance and tolerance of the LGBTQ community. It also trots out some very funny, albeit over-the-top stereotypes in its leading players to prove the point. Acceptance is a knife that clearly cuts both ways.
Nevertheless, Brooks Ashmanskas, as leading man Barry Glickman, and Beth Leavel, as belting leading lady Dee Dee Allen, both play their roles to the hilt with hilarious results and have been nominated for Tony Awards.
Leavel, of course, won a previous Tony Award when she played the title role in The Drowsy Chaperone. Ashmanskas, who has played featured roles on Broadway previously, may have taken his inspiration from some of the gay leading men he has encountered in his career. Whether it’s his innate sense of acting or based on stars he’s met, Ashmanskas’ rendition of self-obsessed Glickman is a fitting counterpart to Leavel’s interpretation of Allen as an elitist and entitled Broadway star.
Also featured are Christopher Sieber as leading man Trent Oliver, who steals the show in Act One with “The Acceptance Song” and in Act Two with “Love Thy Neighbor” when he confronts bigoted high schoolers with facts from the Bible they find disquieting. Angie Schworer plays Angie (maybe she knew the bookwriter), who gets to show off her gamely gams in the uplifting and well-choreographed “Zass.”
The plot is simple. After having recently failed on Broadway in Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, these out-of-work celebrities and their publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon) have seized upon the cause celebre of Emma, an Indiana high schooler who has been banned by her Indiana high school from taking her girlfriend to her prom. Emma, played with sensitivity by Caitlin Kinnunen, at first welcomes these Broadway stars-cum-activists, but it soon becomes obvious they have ulterior motives. “We’re gonna help that little lesbian where she likes it or not” sings Barry in the reprise of “Changing Lives.”
In “It’s Not About Me” Dee Dee challenges the students, parents and faculty by asking “How can you silence a woman who’s known for her belt?”
As tensions rise, school principal Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), who has been a Dee Dee Allen fan for years, tries to work with her and the others while attempting to smooth over the differences with the PTA parents led by Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins). Unbeknownst to Greene, her daughter Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) is the subject of Emma’s affection. Pushback from the parents and the extra attention the Broadway players bring to town causes the difficult situation to spiral completely out of control, creating a schism in the girls’ relationship.
McCalla’s song “Alyssa Greene” and Kinnunen’s solos “Just Breathe” and “Unruly Heart” are beautiful departures from most of the production where true feelings of teenage angst and love gone wrong are expressed with tenderness and feeling.
Director Casey Nicholaw (Mean Girls), who also served as choreographer, decided to go mostly for the laughs rather than tone down the characters, because sometimes laughter helps audiences to sharpen their vision when a story is seen through a comedic lens.
The book by Martin is very funny and coupled with Beguelin’s biting and politically incorrect lyrics, make for an hysterical wild ride as we, predictably, come to an ending where much is resolved and the crusaders are taught valuable lessons in humanity.
While Emma decides she needs to be a leader and an advocate for herself, Alyssa and her mother are challenged in their own relationship. Gloriously, Barry gets to relive his teenage years again and Dee Dee discovers charity and love have to come from the heart.
While it is true that the ending does attempt to tie everything together in a nice bow of acceptance and tolerance, the manipulation by Martin, Sklar and Beguelin is forgivable. It is, after all, only a musical and musicals are supposed to make people happy. The Prom clearly does that even if it uses flamboyant characters and stereotypes.
The Prom, nominated for seven Tony Awards, continues its open Broadway run at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. in New York City, with a running time of two hours and 25 minutes. For tickets, click here.