The national touring production of The Prom now playing at the Kennedy Center is hilarious and touching. A relatively new musical, The Prom opened on Broadway in 2018, won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical in 2019, and in 2020 was adapted into a Netflix movie starring Meryl Streep, James Corden, and Nicole Kidman. Jack Viertel came up with the original concept for the show, with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin.
Most of the show takes place in a small town in Edgewater, Indiana, and follows high school student Emma (Kaden Kearney), a young girl who has the audacity to wish to attend the prom with her girlfriend. The PTA, realizing that banning Emma would cause unwanted civil rights backlash, instead decides to cancel the prom altogether, exacerbating bullying and resentment toward Emma from her fellow classmates.
The Prom begins, however, in New York City with the opening of a musical-within-the-musical, Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, starring stage legends Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel). The Eleanor! cast gleefully sings about “Changing Lives” with their inspiring show, but the mood quickly turns sour when the premiere is panned by The New York Times, which labels Dee Dee and Barry as ill-equipped to relate to, let alone embody, their inspirational characters.
Balan is delightful to watch as Dee Dee, as she struts, flaunts, and vocalizes like a diva. And Wetzel’s flamboyant Barry is pure sass and pomp.
Publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Shavey Brown) frankly informs the stars that no one likes them, due to their narcissism and grotesquely oversized egos, which sparks the idea that they should take on a good cause to counter their terrible reputations. A quick Twitter search finds the story of a lesbian youth (Emma) denied her prom because she wants to bring her girlfriend.
The group’s “cause” newly acquired, they set off to Indiana to “Change Lives.” Joining them is long-time chorus girl and friend Angie Dickenson (Emily Borromeo), who recently quit her 20-year gig in Chicago after producers refused to let her go on for Roxie Hart, and Julliard graduate Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), who is known only as “that guy from Talk to the Hand.”
Back in Indiana, a harassed Emma sings “Just Breathe,” to calm herself and remember that not all people are hateful. The school principal and her great ally Mr. Hawkins (Sinclair Mitchell) pumps Emma up for a PTA meeting, where they will plead their case for reinstating the prom.
Kearney (they/them) plays Emma with an understated strength that boils beneath the surface of her skin but never beyond. The tension in their body conveys the insurmountable weight Emma feels internally to fight for herself against her entire town. She doesn’t want this to be a big deal. She just wants to go to prom.
Cue the Broadway parade of inflated egos. Bursting in on the PTA meeting with banners, Dee Dee leads the group singing “It’s Not About Me,” destroying Emma’s hopes for keeping the issue a small affair and enraging the PTA even further.
Leading the PTA is Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria), a passionate and overbearing mother who is simply trying to “protect” the children. It is unclear whether she knows that her daughter, Alyssa (Kalyn West), is Emma’s girlfriend, but she goes all out to keep Emma isolated, going as far as creating a secret second prom that everyone but Emma is invited to.
As cruel as that sounds, the truly terrible thing is that this aspect of the show is based on real events. A young lesbian in Mississippi was denied to go to prom in 2010 and, after the courts ruled that the school must hold a prom and allow her to take her girlfriend, the parents got together and planned a second secret prom.
Some big-name celebrities got together and funded an inclusive Second Chance Prom for LGBTQ youth and allies across Mississippi — which is not as funny as big-headed stage stars coming to the rescue out of self-interest and vanity, but it is a beautiful and meaningful reaction to the very real hatred and bigotry that exist in the world.
The Prom takes this truth and frames it in a more palatable form for the masses. The show is completely self-aware of its overstated and cliche characters, allowing the actors to make fun of themselves with their absurdities. Dee Dee and Barry would be insufferable as sincere characters, but in the world of a musical comedy, their bumbling attempts at kindness and their utter selfishness are comedy gold.
And the musical numbers are the bells and whistles. With an incredible ensemble and original choreography from Director Casey Nicholaw, the show is packed with high-energy song and dance.
Borromeo’s Angie kicks off the second act, encouraging Emma to give life some “Zazz,” boosting her confidence after the disappointment and deception of the school. And Weber’s Trent sways the other teens to open their minds in “Love Thy Neighbor.” Weber is a highlight as Trent, with an ego much larger than his reputation but a good heart underneath. It is no wonder that he is able to charm the students into love and acceptance, with his boundless enthusiasm.
An unlikely love story develops between die-hard fan Mr. Hawkins and Dee Dee, with the principal’s positive influence softening Dee Dee’s vanity. She sings “The Lady’s Improving,” wooing Hawkins into giving her a chance to be a better human.
But interspersed with the comedic, over-the-top songs are genuine moments for Emma and Alyssa. In “Dance with You,” Emma stresses to her love the simple truth that dancing with her is her only desire. She doesn’t want to be a symbol or cause a stir; she wants to enjoy a dance with Alyssa like any other kid gets to do.
And in the heartbreaking “Alyssa Greene,” West’s Alyssa sings of the pressure she feels from her mother to be perfect and how that makes her feel forced to stay closeted.
The Prom is a lovely production with an important message. Love is love and everyone deserves the chance to be themselves. The seriousness of the theme is couched in exaggerated hilarity, which keeps the audience entertained while absorbing the message.
The entire cast is a joy to watch and the story is inspiring and hopeful, in a time of such divisiveness. The unfortunate truth of the show’s resilient relevance only further proves the necessity for this narrative to be told. The cruelty Emma endures is very real and happens on a daily basis to youth around the world. And if dressing up that fact, with rousing music, high kicks, and stereotypes, helps the message reach a broader audience then so be it.
My only criticism of this production would be Dee Dee’s dress in the first scene. There was damage to the dress and while it is a minor detail, it stood out as a distraction. Balan is incredible (understatement) and deserves to be dressed to perfection, just as her character would demand.
But nit-picking aside, The Prom is well worth the price of admission with dynamite performances and music that will have you dancing in your seat. And a message of love and acceptance is something we all can benefit from. So spread the love. See the show. Bring your friends and neighbors. And maybe this touching tale will reach someone who needs to hear it.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
View The Prom digital program here.
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Cast: Olivia Keating (Ashley Bruce), Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan), Second Reporter (James Caleb Grice), Sheldon Saperstein (Shavey Brown), Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel), Angie (Emily Borromeo), Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), Emma (Kaden Kearney), Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria), Mr. Hawkins (Sinclair Mitchell), Kaylee (Olivia Cece), Shelby (Brittany Nicole Williams), Alyssa (Kalyn West), Nick (James Caleb Grice), Kevin (Jordan Alexander), Motel Clerk (Thad Turner Wilson), 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
Creative Team: Scenic Design: Scott Pask, Costume Design: Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman, Lighting Design: Natasha Katz, Sound Design: Brian Ronan, Hair Design: Josh Marquette, Makeup Design: Milagros Medina-Cerdeira, Music Director: Chris Gurr, Additional Orchestrations: John Clancy, Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly, Vocal Arrangements: Matthew Sklar & Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Music Coordinator: Howard Joines, Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Tippins, Stage Manager: Ellen Goldberg, Assistant Stage Manager: Alex Murphy, Company Manager: Joel T. Herbst, Associate Company Manager: Katie Cortez, COVID Safety Manager: Patrick Goss, Associate Scenic Designers: Stephen Carmody, Orit Jacoby Carroll, Associate Costume Designer: Andrea Hood, Assistant Costume Designer: Michelle Ridley, Associate Hair/Wig Designer: Sarah Levine, Hair Consultant: Destinee Steele, Associate Lighting Designer: Jon Goldman, Assistant Lighting Designer: Abby May, Moving Light Programmer: Marc Polimeni, Associate Sound Designer: Harry Platt, Head Carpenter: Mitch Chvala, Assistant Carpenter: John Stinson, Production Electrician: Barrett Roberts, Production Wardrobe: Carrie Kamerer, Production Sound: Dave Horowitz, Flyman: Paul Arebalo, Head Electrician: Daniel Meltzer, Assistant Electrician: Alexander Stanley, Head Sound: Colin Braeger, Assistant Sound: Alexander Spigner, Head Props: John “Seth” Leach
Orchestra: Conductor & Keyboard 1: Chris Gurr, Associate Conductor & Keyboard 2: Dean Balan, Guitars & Banjo: Stephen Flakus, Acoustic & Electric Basses/Librarian: Crissy Martinez, Drums & Percussion: Derek Stoltenberg, Music Coordinator: Howard Joines, Music Copying: Kaye-Houston Music/Anne Kaye, Doug Houston, Synthesizer Programmer: Jim Abbott, Ableton Programmer: Chris Petti