Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
All this gaiety–no pun intended–is based on a true incident that occurred in a small Mississippi town in 2010 when a lesbian high school student was refused permission to attend prom with her girlfriend. The ACLU took the student's case to court, and the case was ruled in her favor, ordering the district to restore the prom. This led to a number of ploys–private prom events intended to avoid having the rest of the student body fraternize with the "undesirable" gay student–just as private schools were (and are) a method to avoid attending racially mixed schools. Meanwhile, gay celebrity/activists–the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Dan Savage, and Perez Hilton–championed the student's cause, having her appear on their television shows and helping to raise money, including a college scholarship on her behalf.
The talented trio of Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar got together to turn this saga of fortitude in the face of harassment, hatred and discrimination into a delightful time at the theater. They previously contributed to The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf, The Wedding Singer, and Aladdin, musical comedies that lean heavily on the comedy side, so they know their way around this block. Instead of celebrities flying the student to TV studios on the coasts, why not have them show up in person at the small town in question? Then, let's change the location of the town from Mississippi to fictional Edgewater, Indiana. I'm not sure why, but the tradition of lampooning small Midwestern towns in musicals goes back at least as far as Bye Bye Birdie's Sweet Apple, Ohio.
This fish-out-of-water setup is a great engine for laughs, especially if, instead of depicting celebrities as sincere activists, they play on the trope of elitist, narcissistic Broadway types. Let's see what cards are in the deck: a Broadway diva and a mincing gay leading man, both approaching their expiration dates and bruised from by most recent flop; a chorine who never made it from the line to a featured part after twenty years in Chicago; and an actor who never got the break he yearns for, taking comfort in his glory days as a student at Juilliard. Then mix this crew up with Emma, the teenage lesbian at the center of the storm, Emma's closeted girlfriend Alyssa, Alyssa's desperately homophobic mother, and the school principal, a good guy who harbors an adorable crush on Broadway musicals. It almost sounds like a scheme drafted by computer, but it actually works, igniting the stage with fun and heart.
The first act of The Prom sets up the situation, establishing each character's personality through song, dance, and one-liners. To be fair, the Edgewater denizens–Alyssa and her mother, Principal Hawkins, and especially Emma–are allowed to resemble actual humans, with Emma's defenses against the onslaught of hatred she faces expressed in "Just Breathe," and the attraction Emma and Alyssa feel for one another authentically conveyed in both "Dance with You" and "You Happened." An especially lovely moment is delivered by principal Hawkins, singing to diva Dee Dee Allen "We Look at You" to explain why regular people (like him) need extraordinary people (like her) to lift them out of their everyday lives.
The first act ends with things having gotten about as bad as one can imagine for Emma and by extension, for the visiting team from Broadway. Act Two resolves everything by way of a series of fantastic star turns, starting with "Zazz" for Angie, the chorine, that reveal the tricks of her trade; "The Lady's Improving" for Dee Dee, a belted-out eleven o'clock number that arrives a bit early, at about 10:15; "Love thy Neighbor," a rousing hand-clapper for Juilliard alum Trent joined by the cast of Godspell (don't ask); a poignant moment of reflection on the power her mother holds over her for "Alyssa Greene;" the jubilant showstopping "Barry Is Going to Prom" for Barry Glickman; and the one that draws it all together, simply and from deep within, as Emma shares with the world the pain of living with her "Unruly Heart". One after another, these numbers are terrific, delivering so much entertainment that we barely notice how moved we are until the rousing climax wraps it up with a bow.
As director, Casey Nicholaw keeps the show moving at a brisk clip, and manages transitions smoothly, not only from setting to setting, but from campy satire in one scene to tenderly expressed feelings in another. As choreographer, Nicholaw has a field day with half a dozen big production numbers. You know that a show called The Prom will have young, healthy bodies in a dancing frenzy, and Nicholaw delivers. Still, one of the most original bits features just two people, when Angie (played by Emily Borromeo) tutors introverted Emma in the art of "Zazz."
The company of this touring production contains an abundance of talent and every role seems to be ideally cast. Kaden Kearney, who plays Emma, has the most difficult task of holding the show's emotional core and significance together through long stretches of comedy and lively dancing, and they rise handily to that challenge. Courtney Balan is a hoot as Dee Dee Allen, who knows damn well she is a narcissist, but hasn't figured out why that's a problem. Patrick Wetzel is both immensely endearing and funny as Barry Glickman, whom we suspect finds that in being a champion for Emma he is also redeeming some of the wounds inflicted during his own youth. Bud Weber makes the egotist Trent Oliver entirely lovable, and Sinclair Mitchell is a treasure as the star-struck principal. Kalyn West as Alyssa and Ashanti J'Aria as her mother etch their characters with believable markings. The entire ensemble sings and dances with precision and energy enough to power an actual prom.
The costumes by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman are right on the money, including Dee Dee's attention-grabbing wardrobe and a host of shiny prom dresses. Scott Pask's set pieces create a variety of locations, including a motel room decorated in exquisitely bad taste that looks like the real thing (yes, I have stayed in such lodgings). Natasha Katz did the lighting and Brian Ronan the sound, contributing to a first rate production all around. A nod also goes to the terrific orchestra conducted by Chris Gurr.
The Prom is, first and foremost, a terrific entertainment. The ugly incident that inspired it occurred in 2010. By the time the show arrived on Broadway, in 2018, same-sex marriage was the law of the land, let alone same-sex couples at prom. Instead of a call to action, The Prom may have been viewed as a celebratory party. Now it looks like the grounds are shaking as state legislatures around the country pursue new ways to restrict an individual's right to live and love and compete in the world as their true authentic selves. So its happy ending may serve to pump up the energy needed as the struggle continues. But also, it's a well-knit, well-played lollipop of a show that delivers a great time.
The Prom runs through April 17, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $105.00. Discounted Educator and Student rush tickets, when available, are cash only, limit of two tickets per ID. For ticket and performance information call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For tour information, visit theprommusical.com/tour/.
Book: Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin; Music: Matthew Sklar; Lyrics: Chad Beguelin; based on an original concept by Jack Viertel; Directed and Choreographed by: Casey Nicholaw; Scenic Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Hair Design: John Marquette; Makeup Design: Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; Music Director and Conductor: Chris Gurr; Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Additional Orchestrations: John Clancy; Music Arrangements: Liam Robinson; Vocal Arrangements: Matthew Sklar and Mary-Mitchell Campbell; Music Coordinator: Howard Jones; Casting: The Telsey Office/Bethany Knox, CSA; Associate Director: Casey Hushion; Associate Choreographer: John Macinnis; Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Tippins; Executive Producer: Seth Wenig.
Cast: Jordan Alexander (Kevin), Courtney Balan (Dee Dee Allen), Emily Borromeo (Angie), Shavey Brown (Sheldon Saperstein), Ashley Bruce (Olivia Keating), Olivia Cece (Kaylee), James Caleb Grice (second reporter/ Nick), Ashanti J'Aria (Mrs. Greene), Kaden Kearney (Emma), Sinclair Mitchell (Mr. Hawkins), Bud Weber (Trent Oliver), Kalyn West (Alyssa), Patrick Wetzel (Barry Glickman), Thad Turner Wilson (motel clerk). Ensemble: Jordan Alexander, Gabrielle Beckford, Ashley Bruce, Olivia Cece, Maurice Dawkins, James Caleb Grice, Megan Grosso, Marie Gutierrez, Chloe Rae Kehm, Braden Allen King, Brandon J. Large, Christopher McCrewell, Adriana Negron, Brittany Nicole Williams, Thad Turner Wilson, Josh Zacher.