Chief Connecticut Critic
Connecticut Critics Circle / ATCA
Ah, the prom. It’s every high school kid’s biggest dream or worst nightmare, depending on how your teen years went. I remember my prom was spent mostly hiding in the basement of the after-party house with my best friend, avoiding my overly-handsy, drunk date.
Thankfully, this new musical from the creators of “The Wedding Singer” and the “Drowsy Chaperone” does not involve tipsy teens.
Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas) seem not to be the great Broadway stars they once were, or thought they were. After critics pan their musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, they feel that they need to get in the public’s good graces again by championing a cause. Their Broadway friends-in-arms, agent Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon), sassy dancer Angie (Angie Schworer), and miscast, misunderstood actor Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber), all put their heads together and see on social media that there is a young lesbian in Edgewater, Indiana named Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom and the Edgewater PTA, headed by Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins), flatly denies her request. Dee Dee and Barry claim Emma’s plight as their cause and head to Indiana to get that “little lesbian” the prom she deserves.
Of course, not all goes as planned. When they arrive, the five thespian do-gooders have an uphill battle. Their star power is meaningless outside of the tri-state area, except for Emma’s high school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), who is a huge Dee Dee Allen fan. And Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla) is a secret relationship, so they’ve been dating on the DL for almost two years, so it’s not like Emma has many backers. The prom is subsequently cancelled due to all of the commotion caused by the Broadway activists, which doesn’t endear Emma to any of her classmates. Ultimately, the Broadway brigade – especially Dee Dee and Barry – need to make right by Emma by convincing the town that cancelling the prom (and discrimination) is wrong, while they learn about themselves and check their own egos along the way.
The performers are excellent. Both Mr. Ashmanskas and Ms. Leavel provide clear arcs of change as they put their characters’ egos aside to help someone else. Mr. Ashmanskas’ solo number, “Barry is Going to the Prom” is truly a joyful moment as Barry realizes a dream coming true for him. And I am convinced Dee Dee Allen was written specifically for Ms. Leavel as she is perfect in that role, with a star-studded belting voice to match her character’s diva status. Ms. Schworer’s perfectly performed number, “Zazz” was deliciously Kander & Ebb & Fosse, and my theatre geek heart soared. I also enjoyed Ms. McCalla’s performance as Alyssa, whose heartbreaking song, “Alyssa Greene” reveals the struggle of trying to be the perfect girl in an imperfect situation.
However, my far-and-away favorite is Ms. Kinnunen. She gives a nuanced, beautiful performance as the awkward teenager Emma, who is bewildered by the attention she is receiving over wanting to go to the prom with her girlfriend. Her story has an arc that demonstrates her growth as a young adult. She tells a story that I want to hear more about. And her love letter song, “Unruly Heart,” is truly wonderful and heartfelt.
It’s got the musical pieces that a Broadway nerd like me could want: A Fosse number in “Zazz;” an 11 o’clock pull-out-all-the-stops number (“The Lady’s Improving”); a come-to-Jesus number (“Love Thy Neighbor”); the love song (“Dance with You”); and a fabulous, beautiful ballad from the ingénue with “Unruly Heart.” The choreography by Casey Nicholaw is fun and lively, with an ensemble that has the energy of twelve Red Bulls.
So why not the rave review from me?
One issue is probably due to our current political climate. While I strongly believe, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Love is Love is Love is Love,” I grow weary of the preachiness about these topics that has crept into our art forms. “The Prom” pulls no punches about which side it’s on, and what ends up happening is that most of the first act feels self-aggrandizing and condescending, especially all of the Indiana/ Midwest jokes. I laughed out of uncomfortableness, face in my hands; there were two 30-something dudes seated in my row doing the same thing. I felt like Emma through most of the first act, “Who are these people and why don’t they go away?” Act Two redeemed itself as there was less ridicule of Edgewater and more personal reflection and character focus, especially with Emma and Alyssa. I think the choice to have each of the Broadway characters have scenes that focused on themselves helping others presented them more as human and less as caricature.
But I wish they had done the same for the antagonist, Mrs. Greene. This is not a comment on Ms. Collins, who did her best with the material she was given. Her character suffers from stereotyping and lack of character depth. Mrs. Greene is a type-A overachiever, pushing her daughter to be the perfect child, but we don’t understand why she is so demanding of Alyssa. Do the writers suppose the audience won’t care why Alyssa’s mother is motivated to do what she does because she’s in the wrong? Sure, there are hints as to why her mother acts that way in Alyssa’s heartbreaking piece, “Alyssa Greene,” but we never hear it from her mother. And knowing the “Why?” behind the “Bad Guy” is what makes for good theater. When Mrs. Greene realizes what’s happening between Emma and Alyssa, she just says something like “we’ll discuss this later,” and leaves the stage. It leaves a dangling end for Alyssa and her coming-out to her mother, resulting in a plot point that feels unfinished.
You could see “The Prom” as two musicals in one, which means that it can please two kinds of audiences: those looking for musical comedy camp and those who want a more serious story. That’s the positive spin. The flip side is that it could appear to be a musical that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and that ultimately, it is difficult for it to be both. But if you are a dyed-in-the-wool, roadway fan of musical comedy turned up full-blast, and don’t mind some Midwestern lampooning on the side, then this is the ticket to get. If you are visiting from the Midwest and lean anywhere right of center, you might choose different tickets from the TKTS line.
“The Prom” at the Longacre Theatre. Run time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel. Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Starring Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Caitlin Kinnunen, Isabelle McCalla, Michael Potts, Angie Schworer, Courtenay Collins, and Josh Lamon.