Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in small-town Indiana, the plot centers on the plight of Emma, whose high school's PTA cancels the prom once it gets wind that she wants to bring a female date. To Emma's rescue comes a band of Broadway performers, including Barry Glickman and Dee Dee Allen, who find themselves unemployed after the reviews for their musical Eleanor! - The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical called them untalented narcissists. Barry and Dee Dee are searching for a way to redeem themselves and believe that helping out Emma will do the trick. Along with their equally desperate friends Trent and Angie, and their publicist Sheldon, they descend upon Emma's hometown of Edgewater as "celebrity activists" with a plan to force the school to host an inclusive prom and their mission to "change the world, one lesbian at a time."
Based on the true 2010 event when Constance McMillen's prom was cancelled when her principal said she couldn't bring her girlfriend, the musical's book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin manages to do a fairly good job of fleshing out the large group of main characters and not being overly preachy with its messages. It also does well in balancing the serious plight of Emma, who has to deal with her bigoted classmates and members of her town, including her closeted girlfriend's mother, with the humorous journey of the self-centered, and not exactly all successful, Broadway actors who come to town to selfishly help Emma but grow and learn how to connect with others along the way. While you think you may know exactly how the show will end, Martin and Beguelin provide enough drama and surprises to keep the show constantly entertaining. The score features music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin and, like the book, is a varied combination that balances the different journeys the characters are on as it delivers polished musical theatre style showstoppers for the Broadway performers and soaring power ballads for Emma.
However, even though the show runs just under 2 1/2 hours, with six lead roles as well as several supporting ones, there are a lot of characters with solos and stories to be told, some of which shift the focus away from the importance of Emma's situation, and it takes a while for everything to kick into gear. Also, not all of the score is memorable, with some of Emma's songs sounding the same. Fortunately, the plot moves swiftly, the score is professional with some fun rhymes, and the book has some good lines including several that made me laugh out loud.
Under Michael Barnard's astute direction, the Phoenix Theatre Company cast create winning portrayals and get big laughs while also delivering in spades the show's sweet and uplifting messages. As Emma, the musical's bright and strongly beating heart, Hahnna Christianson is a knock-out. Her singing voice is powerful and bright and she makes us care deeply for Emma in a portrayal that is sincere and at times heartbreaking.
Debby Rosenthal is a hoot as Dee Dee, the somewhat older Broadway actress who is extremely self-unaware and unlikable and has a wake up call that she needs to become a better person. Rusty Ferracane is wonderful as Barry, the vain actor who connects with Emma in a warm and winning way when he realizes his younger years were similar to hers; the scenes he shares with Christianson are well acted and staged. Both Rosenthal and Ferracane have warm singing voices that bring out the humor and charm in their many songs. The realization of Ferracane's Barry that he is a gay role model for Emma, and Rosenthal's Dee Dee finally realizing how to connect with those around her, are two reasons this production is a winner.
With perfect comic timing, Kate Cook is hilarious as Angie; her second act solo, "Zazz," is well sung and danced. As Trent, the ultra-serious, Juilliard-trained actor who currently makes his living as a waiter, Lucas CoatneyMurrieta is bright and funny. Matravius Avent is great as the school principal, who just happens to be a musical theatre fan and is supportive of Emma's cause. The moments he has with Rosenthal as Dee Dee provide a nice warmth to the production. While it's not a big role, Chris Eriksen is fun as Sheldon, Barry and Dee Dee's press agent who has to make them face the facts. Also, Tara Venkataraman is lovely as Emma's closeted girlfriend Alyssa, the daughter of the homophobic head of the PTA (the always excellent Alyssa Chiarello) who is behind the cancellation of the prom. The wonderful ensemble are all very good as the bigoted townspeople and classmates, and they do a great job delivering Lauran Stanis' high-energy choreography.
The scenic design by Douglas Clarke colorfully creates a realistic school gymnasium setting plus many other locations, with swiftly moving scene changes that keep the pace brisk. Tim Monson's lighting uses a range of bright colors and hues to provide some lovely stage images. Maci Hosler's costumes are excellent and Josh Lutton's hair and make-up designs work well for both the Broadway performers and the rural locals. The sound design by Dave Temby ensures that everything is crisp and clear, including the cast's vocals and the warm notes from the 10-piece orchestra under Kevin White's sharp music direction.
While the message at the center of The Prom, of being able to be who you are and love who you want to, may not be one that most already liberal-leaning theatregoers need convincing of, the show still manages to be warm and charming. With a fantastic cast, smart direction, and rich creative elements, The Prom at The Phoenix Theatre Company is sharp, funny, and ultimately a winning, feel-good musical about love and inclusion.
The Prom runs through July 9, 2023, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Director/ Musical Staging: Michael Barnard
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.