I would use every one of those words or phrases to describe each aspect of The Prom, a new Broadway musical that took my breath away not once but twice: because one of its stars, Beth Leavel, was ill the night I was scheduled to review the show, I was invited back to see it when she recovered. It’s been directed and choreographed to perfection by Casey Nicholaw who clearly knows what he’s doing every step of the way.
The Prom features a frequently humorous book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, based on an original concept by Jack Viertel, a lively score by Matthew Sklar and always telling lyrics by Beguelin. In the show, Leavel plays Dee Dee Allen, a Broadway star who is in a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, which features a hip-hop score and closes precipitously after receiving a pan from the Times. That set-up seems to point to the fact that Broadway has been recently overtaken by tired and redundant biographical musicals–not to mention the jukebox editions.
The Prom is giving Broadway something it’s been lacking for years, which is a high-spirited, old-fashioned musical comedy, where the cast’s energy spills out over the footlights, and is then reflected in all the smiling faces you encounter as you leave the theater. It’s the equivalent of a standing ovation that moves out into the streets.
To return to the story, Dee Dee’s co-star is one Barry Glickman (the stalwart Brooks Ashmanskas). Their need to salvage their reputations from such a huge flop requires them to overcome their status as self-involved stars. As Barry rhetorically asks, “So talking about yourself non-stop suddenly makes you a narcissist?”
The plot pivots around their decision to find a cause they can latch onto and “become celebrity activists,” taking the attention off themselves. They discover a young lesbian–“It’s all over Twitter”–in Edgewater, Indiana, who wanted to go with her current girlfriend to the Prom and “the PTA went apeshit,” cancelling the dance. According to the school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), it’s become “a civil rights case.”
Their actor friend and cater-waiter, Trent (Christopher Sieber), who went to Julliard and “won’t shut up about it”, has booked a non-equity tour of Godspell that “goes right through Indiana,” he tells them, and “you can join us on the bus.” Along with their other acting friend, Angie (Angie Schworer), who’s recently left Chicago after being in the chorus for two decades, Dee Dee and Barry arrive in Edgewater, which is where and when, in a sense, The Prom, really begins. It’s the black Principal Hawkins who recognizes Dee Dee, claiming he’s “a big fan” and adding that, “straight people like Broadway too.”
When we first meet “lezbo” Emma, she seems awkward, but as the story progresses, she becomes the strongest character. She’s also wonderfully realized by Caitlin Kinnunen, who gives a moving performance and brings her pure and unadulterated voice to several of the show’s best songs: “Just Breathe,” “Dance with You,” “You Happened,” all of which she sings with the love of Emma’s life, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), who is also the daughter of the head of the PTA. Kinnunen also brings real pizzazz to the second act’s opening number, “Zazz”–with more than a nod to Bob Fosse–which the out-there Emma sings with the versatile Angie.
It’s the extremely fey Barry who helps Emma select her outfit for the Prom. The dead-on, character-specific costumes are by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman and the many scene changes have been designed with an equal specificity by Scott Pask, whose sets lend an element of reality to what unfolds.
In the end, the real inspiration for The Prom seems to have been Dear Evan Hansen, especially for Sklar’s sizzling and scintillating score.
The Prom (through August 11, 2019)
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200, or visit http://www.ThePromMusical.com
Running time: two and half hours including one intermission