Broadway review: The Prom (4/4/19)

posted by Jeff | Friday, April 12, 2019, 11:06 PM | comments: 0

For our 10th anniversary, Diana and I went to The Prom. That's about 27 years late for me, but it was one of the most joyous experiences I've had in a long time.

Let me just get this out of the way now: I'm a little obsessed with this show because it was crazy good and only casually on my radar in the last few months. Having two nights unplanned for our New York trip, we spent the first on what I knew was largely spectacle entertainment (see King Kong), and we felt almost as though we needed to see something that was "high art" just to counter that. But then I was randomly scrolling about Twitter and ran into this:

If you know me, and about my Hamilton problem, you know that Mr. Miranda's opinion has some weight in these parts. It wasn't until later the next afternoon, and hours before curtain, that we ended up in the TKTS booth near Lincoln Center buying tickets (and the best seats for anything we saw on this trip, by the way).

The Prom is about Emma, a teenage lesbian, living in Indiana who is being held responsible for the cancellation of prom because she wants to bring her girlfriend, Alyssa. To make matters worse, her closeted girlfriend is the daughter of the PTA mom making all of the noise. So a bunch of Broadway actors teetering on irrelevance see an opportunity to raise their profile and score some solid PR if they get involved. Hilarity ensues as they make the situation worse.

This is a show that could come off as a terribly preachy assault on bigoted rural folk, but it also pokes at the liberal east coast types and celebrities as well. This level of self-awareness is part of the reason it works so well as a musical comedy. It takes a serious subject, the oppression of minorities and kids who are different (specifically LGBTQ kids), and takes shots at the adults who make the situation so volatile. If you're a musical theater fan, you'll undoubtedly enjoy an entire song filled with in-jokes ("It's Not About Me"), and they're littered throughout the show without being too inside baseball.

There are really three stories going on at once. The first is about the actors as they grapple with getting old and perhaps irrelevant, and these in turn involve one developing a relationship with the high school principal, two coaching Emma and one trying to be the less-than-hip mentor to the other students (while name dropping Juilliard as often as possible). The second is about the evolving attitudes of the townsfolk and students. The third is about Emma and Alyssa trying to find themselves, each other and a more inclusive world where they can just be themselves. All three subplots ultimately revolve around the dance, and all of this action is the reason that it's easy to get invested in so many characters. The girls, actors, the principal, and even Mrs. Greene, Alyssa's mom, feel like richly developed, real people.

The music and dialog tends to flip back and forth between silly and sweet, but never corny or contrived. The dancing is intense and youthful without being abstract or silly performance art. The writing is the funniest thing I've seen since Book of Mormon, without having to rely on borderline offensive humor. Every characters is a mess, so they have a lot to draw from. But what makes the whole thing so joyful is a happy ending. The heart of the show comes in the song "Unruly Heart," which I won't give too much away for, but it is the emotional center of the entire musical. Emma sings, "So fear's all in the past, fading so fast, I won't stay hidden any more. I'm who I am, and I think that's worth fighting for." If you're wondering if there's a soaring chorus after this and an extraordinary message of love and acceptance, yes, there is, and people cry, and the audience goes completely nuts for it. So much joy.

If the material itself wasn't enough, the cast is breathtaking. Emma is played by Caitlin Kinnunen, who brings a genuine sweetness and vulnerability that's so real you want to give her a hug. She's also got pipes like you wouldn't believe. I wondered why I had never heard of her, but along with most of the cast, she's been involved with this show for years as it was developed. Isabelle McCalla plays Alyssa with a similarly genuine performance, filled with the sadness of being stuck between who she is and her mother's expectations. Beth Leavel plays Dee Dee Allen, and looks and sounds like a classic Broadway diva, because frankly she is. She's over 60 and can audibly kick your ass. Brooks Ashmanskas plays Barry Glickman as the archetype of gay musical theater guys, but volleys between over the top and candid. Angie Schworer moves around with her "crazy antelope legs" as the chorus girl stuck in the ensemble for 20 years, with an appreciation for Fosse. Michael Potts plays the principal, Mr. Hawkins, and is the wise grounded character. For Trent Oliver, the Juilliard guy, we saw alternate Josh Franklin, who played the part differently than Christopher Sieber on the cast recording, but not better or worse. Every last one of them are A-players.

They announced this week that this was going to be made into a movie for Netflix for release by fall of next year, which is exciting because I think the world needs it. I am completely enamored with this show and I think it's completely brilliant. I hope it gets the Tony attention it deserves and a tour sooner than later.


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