Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is my third time at The Prom, beating my high school record of attending two proms. I thoroughly enjoyed them all: first, the Netflix movie version in December, 2020; second, the national touring company that played the Orpheum in Minneapolis just last April; and now Chanhassen's production, which I enjoyed best of all. Sure, starting out with a great dinner doesn't hurt, but more to the point, there's something about the Chanhassen experience, as thoroughly professional as it is, that creates a feeling of hugely talented and ambitious people deciding to get together and put on a show. It's a can-do, we made this ourselves vibe that embosses every one of its productions with positivity, not so unlike the positivity of young people working to create an enchanted evening they will never forget, their prom.
The Prom is based on a true incident. In 2010, a student in a small-town Mississippi high school announced plans to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo. She was barred from participating and when she challenged the school board, their response was to cancel prom altogether. That student, backed by the ACLU, sued the district. A federal court ruled in her favor, requiring the school district to reinstate the prom. This the district did, but only a handful of students attended; a parent group secretly organized a separate LGBT-free prom for the other students. When this gambit drew media attention, several pop celebrities, including the band Green Day, rallied in support of the student and sponsored a do-over prom that all students could attend, free of any homophobic backlash.
The musical's book by Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer, Elf the Musical) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) maintains the determination and the tenderness of young love at the core of the story. However, they lather the book into a satire of the fabulous world of Broadway with hilarious results. The crew marching into town–moved from Mississippi to Indiana–to support the girl, here named Emma, are now a quartet of Broadway glitterati. They are not there out of compassion for Emma or commitment to social change. Fading stars Barry Glickman and Dee Dee Allen are there for publicity to rehab their reputations, and perennial chorine Angie Dickinson and pompous Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver, who is waiting tables while awaiting his big break on stage, are there to raise their profile.
The team of Broadway invaders are hilarious, in particular in the hands of Jodi Carmeli as Dee Dee and Tod Petersen as Barry, who have the most time out front (as their swollen egos would demand) and the funniest material. Petersen can be accused of stealing the show, bursting with Barry's very-out persona erupting when a dream he never realized as a gay teenager comes true, "Barry Is Going to Prom." Dee Dee is an obtuse egotist, failing to understand why she shouldn't expect everyone's attention and adoration–isn't that the point of being a Broadway star? Carmeli flippantly embodies this narcissism and Dee Dee's slow, painful evolution into someone who could do a good deed out of sheer goodness, because, as she delivers in her signature belt, "The Lady's Improving." Upon her arrival in Indiana, although she can scarcely remember Emma's name, she asserts that "It's Not About Me," sung and danced to a sizzling flamenco by way of the Great White Way.
Monty Hays is wonderful as Emma, summoning unusual depths of resolve while addled by the insecurities common to all teenagers. Hays beautifully delivers Emma's introductory number, "Just Breathe," and the romantic "Dance with You", ably joined by Maya Richardson (fresh from playing the lead in Chanhassen's Footloose) as Alyssa, the object of Emma's love. Hays sweetly renders Emma's painfully realized self-knowledge in "Unruly Heart," the pivotal song that lifts Emma's campaign out of their small Indiana town to become a viral dose of uplift across the nation.
Shad Hanley gives a great performance as thwarted thespian Trent Oliver, whose years as a Juilliard student were his glory days. He helms two uproarious numbers, "The Acceptance Song" and "Love Thy Neighbor," with the backing of a non-Equity touring cast of Godspell–don't ask, but trust me, it's just one of the show's many delights. As Angie Dickinson, Helen Anker has the long, lithe body to be convincing as a twenty-year veteran of the ensemble in Chicago, bitter that she hasn't yet been given a shot at the lead, Roxie Hart. In her big solo, "Zazz," Anker channels the raspy voice and slithery moves of Gwen Verdon, the legendary star who originated the role of Roxie forty-eight years ago.
JoeNathan Thomas is swell as a high school principal who harbors a secret love of Broadway musicals, in awe that iconic diva Dee Dee Allen is there in person, revealing his secret in the shyly sweet "We Look to You." Tiffany Cooper is an effective force as the show's villain, Mrs. Greene–Alyssa's disapproving mother and PTA president determined to block Emma's crusade and the influence she suspects Emma is having on her daughter. A hangdog Broadway producer traveling with the crew, Sheldon Saperstein, is a smaller role with no musical number of his own, but Jay Albright brings wit to the part. The ensemble is a force of combustible energy, dancing their fannies off, with featured dancers Laura Rudolph and Daysha Ramsey as the meanest of the high school girls, and Dylan Rugh and Mitchell Douglas as their boyfriends, deserving special notice.
Chanhassen's long time–35 years!–Artistic Director Michael Brindisi is the guru who pulls all of these elements, the satire and campy comedy, the sweetness, songs, dances, and design elements, into a delicious parfait of entertainment and heart. Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography makes great use of the show's talented ensemble, with seven–count 'em, seven–big dance numbers, plus the duet "Zazz," a lighthearted homage to Fosse. Design work is good on all counts, most especially Rich Hamson's costumes, complete with sparkly prom wear and the fully outfitted cast of Godspell.
The Prom's book sparkles with an abundance of laugh-out-loud material while maintaining a sensitive, respectful focus on the conflict at the heart of the show. Beguelin wrote lyrics with goofy lines like "bigotry's not big of me, and it's not big of you" ("The Acceptance Song"), whip-smart lines like the diva Dee Dee's "How do you silence a woman who's known for her belt?" ("It's Not About Me"), and insightful self-affirmation like Emma's "no matter what the world might say, this heart is the best part of me" ("Unruly Heart."). Matthew Sklar, who partnered with Beguelin on past musicals, composed the music, borrowing in tone from other shows, sometimes as a parody of showbiz excess, but the result is Sklar's best work to date, a set of highly listenable songs that have been re-playing in my mind since I walked–no, bounced–out of the theater following the big "It's Time to Dance" finale.
The Prom is a more recent a show than Chanhassen usually selects. The just concluded Footloose, while drenched in the spirit of a rocker, first appeared over twenty years ago (1998) and of course is based on a blockbuster movie. Before that, Chanhassen hosted the golden age musical The Music Man. This poses a challenge for the audience that is usually drawn to the familiar titles on the Chanhassen marquee. I commend Brindisi and company for taking a risk that audiences will show up for a show with which they may not already be familiar. I urge those audience members, along with those new to the pleasure of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, to make good on that risk–to support Chanhassen's faith in you, and to treat yourself to an intoxicatingly good time.
The Prom runs through, June 10, 2023, at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, 501 West 78th Street, Chanhassen MN. Tickets including dinner and show: $73.00 - $98.00. Show-only tickets, if available, at box office ten days before performance date: $53.00 - $78.00. Check website for senior (age 55+) and student (ages 5-17) discounts. For tickets and information, please call 952-934-1525, toll-free 1-800-362-3515, or visit www.chanhassendt.com.
Book: Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, based on the original concept by Jack Viertel; Music: Matthew Sklar; Lyrics: Chad Beguelin; Director: Michael Brindisi; Choreographer: Tamara Kangas Erickson; Music Director: Andy Kust; Set Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Sue Ellen Berger; Sound Design: Russ Haynes; Hair Design: Amanda Levens; Properties Director: Laura Wilhelm Intimacy Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Technical Director: Logan Jambik; Production Stage Manager: Thomas Schumacher; Assistant Stage Manager: John Trow.
Cast: Kate Marie Andrews (ensemble), Jay Albright (Sheldon Saperstein), Helen Anker (Angie Dickinson), Tommy Benson (ensemble), Jodi Carmeli (Dee Dee Allen), Noah Coon (ensemble), Tiffany Cooper (Mrs. Greene), Mitchell Douglas (Kevin), Michael Gruber (ensemble), Matthew Hall (ensemble), Monty Hays (Emma Nolan), Shad Hanley (Trent Oliver), Javari Horne (ensemble), Tyson Insixiengmai (ensemble), Mark King (Reporter Two/ensemble), Linda Talcott Lee (ensemble), Kayli Lucas (ensemble), Abby Magalee (ensemble), Ann Michels (ensemble), Joey Miller (ensemble), Andrea Mislan (ensemble), Lussi Pearl (ensemble), Tod Petersen (Barry Glickman), Daysha Ramsey (Shelby), Maya Richardson (Alyssa Greene), Kirstin Rodau (ensemble), Dylan Rugh (Nick), Andre Shoals (ensemble), Sam Stoll (ensemble), JoeNathan Thomas (Principal Hawkins), Janet Hayes Trow (Olivia Keating/ensemble), John Trow (Motel Clerk), Tony Vierling (Reporter One/ensemble)).