By Marc Miller
So: Some New
York show-biz sophisticates descend on a Midwestern town and interfere with the
locals, in the process unsettling the high school student body and stirring up
parent-child issues, while learning a few lessons about themselves. Bye Bye
Birdie, right? Yes, and now it’s also The Prom, a new musical comedy
that incorporates elements of Birdie, Hairspray, Head Over
Heels, and probably a couple of other titles. Coarser than Birdie,
and busier, with a Casey Nicholaw staging that doesn’t know when to quit, it’s
nevertheless grand entertainment, and probably the closest we’ll get in 2018 to
a new Golden Age musical comedy.
contemporary musical it is, The Prom aggressively preaches tolerance.
You expected something different? In fictional Edgewater, Indiana, much as in
Sweet Apple, Ohio, the kids are abuzz. Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), seventeen, has
asked her girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), who isn’t out to her
homophobic mom, Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins), to the prom. Rather than risk
the fallout of lesbians at a school dance, the PTA has canceled the whole
thing. It’s a sad and believable situation, and in fact, it’s based on an
actual event from 2010.
just the issue to revive the careers of Broadway diva Dee Dee (usually Beth
Leavel; at this performance, Kate Marilley stepped in) and her “gay as a bucket
of wigs” leading man Barry (Brooks Ashmanskas), who have just crash-landed in
their one-performance disaster, Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical.
Their trouble, says Sheldon (Josh Lamon), their agent, is that they’re
narcissists. “So talking about yourself nonstop suddenly makes you a
narcissist?” huffs Barry.
need, says Sheldon, is a social issue to embrace and rally around, currying
favorable PR and restoring their careers. Off the three go to Edgewater,
accompanied by their actor friends Angie (Angie Schworer), who just quit the Chicago chorus after 20 years of being passed over for Roxie, and Trent
(Christopher Sieber), whose current cater-waiter status obscures a
Juilliard-trained past, not that he’ll let anybody forget it. It would be snide
to say, hilarious hijinks ensue, but they really do.
Meehan gone, we need a first-rate musical comedy librettist, and Bob Martin may
be it. He collaborated on this book with Chad Beguelin. Begueln wrote the
lyrics, and maybe if sound designer Brian Ronan just lowered the volume we
could understand more than half of them. What we do hear are smart, funny, and,
rarest of all, neat—no pretend rhymes or ragged meters here. Set to Matthew
Sklar’s melodies, which by today’s paltry standards are pretty tuneful, the
songs pop naturally out of the book, which, a loose thread or two aside, is a
model of musical comedy efficiency.
deals in stereotypes on both sides—the rigid, suspicious flyover folk vs. the
shallow, self-centered theater people (who get to rattle off a number of clever
theatrical in-jokes). But Martin and Beguelin, after introducing what
could be characters who are caricatures, manage to humanize everybody, turning
them into three-dimensional people.
Mrs. Greene, in Collins’s sensitive portrayal, is a mom who only wants the best
for her daughter, or tells herself that. When Barry tells her she’d better
accept Alyssa as she is or she’ll lose her, we know it’s something Barry has
lived through, and this flouncy actor acquires surprising depth.
Dee Dee, the authors give her a romance of sorts, with the school principal,
Hawkins (a self-effacing Michael Potts). Dee Dee learns, and grows, in a
convincing and satisfying way. (Marilley displayed an impressive belt and
landed the jokes adeptly, but one has to assume that Leavel has more, to use
the title of a swell Act Two number, “Zazz.”)
balanced between the larger-than-life New Yorkers and the unremarkable
Midwesterners. Kinnunen, who deserves and gets the final bow, is the emotional center,
and she keeps Emma human-sized and relatable—as do Potts and McCalla, who are
each rewarded with fine songs that tell us more about who Hawkins and Alyssa
on the other side of the equation, Ashmanskas, Sieber, and Schworer revel in
the showiness of Barry, Trent, and Angie. They look like they’re having a
blast, and they also do well with their few quiet moments. Ashmanskas, who’s
played this type of role before but never had such good lines, can switch from
hilarious to touching on a dime.
probably Broadway’s go-to director-choreographer by now, does what he usually
does: keeps the pacing breakneck, and choreographs rather more than he has to.
These are not moves Indiana kids would know or be able to execute, and the
dazzle-for-dazzle’s-sake can get oppressive in spots. On the other hand, he
lets the smaller moments play naturally and unassumingly, and when was the last
time you saw a book scene in a Broadway musical earn applause? Scott Pask’s
sets are busy—and confusing, at a crucial late-Act-One point where we’re not
always sure where we are. But Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman serve up just the
right costumes, glittery for the New York faction and Dress Barn-dull for the
townspeople, and Natasha Katz’s lighting glows.
In the end,
the most impressive work in The Prom comes from the librettists. I
slogged a couple of weeks ago through Love, Simon, a recent movie about
two cute gay teen boys in love. It ends, spoiler alert, with the happy couple
kissing at the top of a Ferris wheel, while the townspeople below, formerly hate-spewing
parents and schoolmates, cheer them on. And I thought, no, that ain’t gonna
happen. But thanks to Martin and Beguelin, everybody in The Prom gets
his say, and you believe them, and when a similar happy ending arrives, it’s
earned and credible.
The Prom may be more engineered
than inspired, but it works, works, works, and the blending of punch lines and exchanges
that make you care about these people is beyond expert, it’s genius. Arriving
at her woebegone Indiana motel, Dee Dee brandishes her two Tony Awards to get
upgraded to a suite. Martin and Beguelin may as well make room on their mantels
for theirs right now.
At the Longacre
Theatre, at 220 W 48th St, Manhattan.
and more information, phone 212-335-1672 or
time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including intermission.