Review: ‘The Prom’ Delivers a Musical Comedy with Heart

By Paige Allen
July 14, 2019

A Broadway star sits in the booth of an Applebee’s across from a small town school principal. The principal expresses his love for the theatre and tries to explain to the actress (through song, of course) why people care about musicals:

“We need a place to run to
When everything goes wrong
When the answer to each problem
Is to burst into a song
And standard rules of logic just simply don’t apply
When people dance in unison
And no one wonders why….”

This song looks to explain what theatregoers seek not only in your average Broadway musical but also in the musical in which the song itself is situated: The Prom. Billed as “Broadway’s new musical comedy” and playing at the Longacre Theatre through August 11, The Prom unabashedly embraces the tradition of the musical comedy to tell a story about how theatre can save the day (if only after egos are set aside, of course).

The Prom begins by introducing us to four unsatisfied thespians: the self-aggrandizing star Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel); the flamboyant funny man Barry Glickman (played by understudy Josh Lamon in the performance I saw); the sexy, sweet, and stuck-in-the-chorus Angie (Angie Schworer); and the underemployed Juilliard grad Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber). After a reviewer pans Dee Dee and Barry’s latest show and accuses them (rightly) of narcissism, the four cook up a plan to get good press by becoming celebrity activists and taking up a cause. Thanks to Twitter, they stumble across the story of an Indiana high schooler named Emma Nolan (Caitlin Kinnunen) whose school has canceled the prom rather than allow Emma to bring a girl as her date. The New York actors travel to Emma’s small town, Edgewater, with the hopes of swooping in and saving the day.

Once there, the actors soon discover their mission will not be as easy as it seemed, in part due to the traditionalist PTA led by strong-willed Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins)—whose daughter Alyssa (played by understudy Kalyn West in the performance I attended) is secretly dating Emma—and in part due to the actors’ own egos and lack of empathy.

As the principal Mr. Hawkins (Michael Genet) sings in “We Look to You,” the “standard rules of logic” don’t always apply in the world of The Prom, and the musical lacks nuance (I really don’t think one actor singing to a group of kids about how “love thy neighbor” is the most important part of the Bible could overcome years of deep-seated prejudice in a few minutes, nor do I think it likely that every single kid and parent connected to this high school in 2019 would mindlessly go along with the homophobic practices of the PTA and the student body without there being some internal tension). 

But The Prom is intentional about the tropes it plays into and the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a musical comedy. Its aim is to be delightful and heartwarming, to tell an uplifting story, not to emulate reality.

With book and lyrics by Chad Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar, The Prom intentionally draws on the musical theatre canon, infusing the play with the charm of a classic musical comedy while updating its voice to reflect contemporary issues. Sklar often employs pastiche to give the music familiarity, notably in Angie’s song, “Zazz,” which nods its head to Chicago and Trent’s song, “Love Thy Neighbor,” which could be pulled from Godspell (in fact, the cast members of a non-equity production of the musical are characters in The Prom).

Other characters in the musical specifically reference Carrie, the Stephen King novel turned movie turned musical, as The Prom draws from that other, less hopeful musical about an outsider and a school dance. A happier comparison can be made to Footloose as Emma, like Ren, fights against outdated policies and pursues a relationship with the daughter of the head of the conservative adults (not to mention the prevalence of dance in the storytelling, incorporated in The Prom by director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw).

While The Prom may not be revolutionizing the form of musical theatre, the production does have, as Emma sings, an “unruly heart.” The main character in The Prom is a lesbian, and Kinnunen herself has publicly come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community. Lesbian stories do not reach Broadway stages nearly as often as stories of gay men let alone straight individuals, and when they do, they are often relegated to the sidelines. Presenting on Broadway a high school musical comedy with a lesbian love story at its core is a big deal for the visibility and normalization of the lesbian community. With her bright belt and grounded strength, Kinnunen brings a new kind of Broadway heroine to life.

The Prom also explores the importance of role models for queer youth (the relationship which grows between Barry and Emma is touching), the role of the internet in finding queer community, and the necessity of LGBTQ+ and arts education in high schools in addition to addressing how Christianity can be practiced without homophobia—messages which are all packed into a joyous and bubbly musical. 

When Mr. Hawkins tells Dee Dee he loves the theatre because he can escape through it, Dee Dee asks, “So, theater is a distraction? Is that what you’re saying?”

I admit, when the ensemble of high schoolers dressed in their colorful prom regalia (costumes designed by Ann Roth) exploded into unified dance, I found myself grinning as I felt the thrill that Mr. Hawkins describes. As I think of the kids I saw in the audience dancing along with the music, engrossed by the story, I can’t help but hope that the more kids who see a show like The Prom—a musical comedy with a lot of heart and a message of inclusion—the fewer stories like the beginning of Emma’s will have to be told.

Mr. Hawkins clarifies: “No, a distraction is momentary. An escape helps you heal.”

Ideally, that is what The Prom accomplishes: it helps us begin to heal as we learn to “build a prom for everyone.”

BCS-friendliness rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TodayTix ran a “Freedom from Fees” special on several of its shows, including The Prom, so I was able to get my ticket for the performance for only $49. Tickets start at TodayTix at $49 (with fees now) and $40 same-day rush tickets are available at the box office. It’s a large space, and TodayTix are cheap, so I would assume there is pretty good availability.

My seats were in the balcony and I could see the full stage which I appreciated during the big dance numbers. The show definitely isn’t subtle, so you won’t miss much from far away.


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