Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin (Book); Matthew Sklar (Music); Chad Beguelin (Lyrics)
Oops! Eleanor (the musical) is an opening night flop for long-time Broadway stars, Dee Dee and Barry. Uh-oh! The only show available for Julliard-trained Trent is a non-equity tour of Godspell. Damn! Twenty years in the chorus of Chicago, and Angie has had enough.
What are four has-beens of the Great White Way who all crave the bright lights of fame and popularity to do? How about change the life of a small-town, high-school senior from the Bible Belt who happens to be lesbian? How about all the career-saving publicity they can also get when they show up to demand the local PTA reverse its decision that she cannot go to the high school prom with her girlfriend? After all, they are stars; and who can resist their glamorous singing, dancing, and well, stardom?
Grab your glitter; glam up; and gaily grab a ticket for the best Pride Month gift you can give yourself, a night at The Prom. BroadwaySF raises the roof and shakes the rafters of the Golden Gate Theatre with this outrageously hilarious, musically rocking, energy pumping, and yes, emotionally inspiring 2019, Drama Desk Best Musical by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (book); Matthew Sklar (music); and Chad Beguelin (lyrics). Audience buzz alone from the opening night should be enough to guarantee, future sold-out performances – a rollicking evening kicked off by the spicy and sexy princess of the runway, Lady Camden of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame and an evening that ended with everyone dancing in their seats for the sky-high, upbeat, full-cast finale.
But back to those four, Broadway washouts. After searching for the right cause to save the world that can also help relaunch their careers (Building houses for the poor? Reforming the Electoral College? Rescuing dying penguins?), a Google search leads them to Edgewater, Indiana and to Emma, a young girl who has been locked out of her senior prom because her date is to be a girl – an incident based on an actual occurrence in Mississippi in 2011. With gleeful determination, they set out while singing (and of course dancing) of their plan to “Save the World,” “one lesbian at a time,” ready for press cameras and interviews all directed (of course) at them.
Arriving just in time to interrupt the PTA’s meeting when Emma is about to speak, the four burst into song railing at “you bigoted monsters … the people of whatever this town is called.” Dee Dee belts forth in her best Eva-Peron, raised-arm pose and commanding voice, “It’s not about me, it’s about poor Emma.” But no matter how many times she or the others try to out-do each other in exaggerated vocals and stage moves to convince the shocked townsfolks it is really all about Emma, no one – much less Emma herself – believes otherwise.
Emma is anything but Broadway. She is just a quiet, clearly shy kid who dresses in baggy jeans, green military coat, and flannel shirt, who was kicked out of her mom’s house at sixteen when she came out to her. She daily also undergoes ridicule and homophobic remarks by her fellow classmates. But all that aside, Emma only wants one thing, as she sings to her girlfriend, Alyssa: “I just want to dance with you, let the whole world melt away and dance with you.” Kaden Kearney sings with a voice denoting Emma’s youth and her genuine hope for that chance to dance in public with the girl whom she has a teenage crush. Kayln West’s Alyssa responds with a likened dream of a prom moment together as the two sing a love song (“Dance with You”) that rings with the kind of emotional innocence and fervor that only a teen and her first love can together feel.
The out-of-town crusaders who have promised the PTA folks a public “rally with choreography” find themselves at a rally like they could not have imagined in NYC: They as half-time entertainment at the local monster truck rally. But even with a Godspell, non-equity, back-up chorus in glitzy “We Are All Lesbians” t-shirts, their ridiculous lyrics and ego-centered, over-done production (“The Acceptance Song”) is a bust for their cause. For us, it is a rainbow-rich and riotous hoot.
With the help of her sympathetic and supportive principal, Mr. Hawkins, a decision is announced that Emma will get her prom; but when she arrives in her prom dress, all she finds is a dismally decorated and empty gym. Much as really happened in 2011 Mississippi, Alyssa’s PTA president mom, Mrs. Green, has arranged a secret and elaborate prom offsite for the rest of the students. That includes a devastated Alyssa, who had planned to use her first dance with Emma as a coming out to her homophobic, controlling, and outspoken mother (a role played with righteous piety and vicious determination by Ashanti J’Aria).
With this utter failure of the Broadway quartet to help Emma and to revive their careers, Dee Dee is ready to cut bait and run. While Emma takes charge of her own situation, these lovers of the spotlight who set out to ‘change the world’ (the ‘world’ really being mostly their sinking careers) slowly but steadily each begin to change themselves for the better, even and reluctantly, Dee Dee. And in those shifts for them and for her, some of the night’s best moments and songs occur.
The quietest of the four, ex-chorus girl Angie (Emily Borromeo), struts with Fosse flair as she teaches Emma how to approach life with “Zazz,” with Emma breaking out of her former reticence to join in a duet with Angie of bold and jazzy, hand-spreading moves that even the master himself would approve. Trent decides it is time to convert the kids of the town and confronts a group hanging out at a convenience store to prove to them how conveniently they have hypocritically overlooked many of the Bible’s commandments while holding fast to the verse condemning same-sex relationships. With a voice that pierces the air with its crisp clarity, Bud Weber convincingly sells the notion of “Love Thy Neighbor” in a number where both students and the traveling Godspell-ers join in song and dance that combines the fire of a revival meeting and the ardor of a pregame pep rally, with arms pumping, bodies jumping, and legs flying skyward.
Describing himself as “gay as a basket full of wigs” whose alter ego is “Carol Tatum Channing,” Barry begins to melt his egocentric shell the more he is around Emma. The relationship they build is special to watch as the story develops. Patrick Wetzel is nothing short of endearing and funny as hell in the role of Barry; and his own journey to change himself is rewarded by a chance finally to go to a prom himself. In his motel room and in PJs, Barry performs one of the best numbers of an evening as he uses his bed as a stage and the cheaply adorned room as his grand arena to sing and dance with vibrant vocals and impressive moves, “Barry Is Going to Prom.”
The ego that just cannot let go of itself is that of Dee Dee. Her self-centeredness gets reinforced by the starry-glazed eyes of Principal Hawkins who takes her to dinner at Applebee’s and tells her of how he knows every move, show, and song of her career. In a voice that resounds with quiet gratitude and genuine awe, Sinclair Mitchell sings Hawkins’ personal tribute to Broadway (“We Look to You”) that could be sung by so many of us who find joy in our escape to a musical world where people face everyday problems by spontaneously bursting into song and where “people dance in unison and no one asks why.” This song and the evening’s clever, comic references to numerous Broadway musicals of the past and present are an underlying thread of The Prom that adds to the total bundle of the night’s fun.
But Dee Dee makes a convincing case that “The Lady’s Improving” when she turns the principal’s office into her own private stage where Courtney Balan proves she is the star of the night when it comes to big-stage presence with a belting voice and legs that can kick a mile high. Her Dee Dee loves to flaunt her stardom to anyone who will notice, but the caricature she displays for all to see is also a great way The Prom gives Broadway a chance to laugh at itself as its stars learn a bit about the real, not-always-so-nice life of small-town America.
The exuberance of the evening is pumped into high gear every time Casey Nicholaw both directs and choreographs a stage full of dancers who invariably pump elbows with vigor, jerk arms and legs in every direction possible, twist through the air, and move with speeds furious. What makes the cheerleader style of dance work is that these are supposed to be kids in high school exploding with hormones on fire; and that is exactly how they come across, providing a great contrast with the Broadway style moves of the New York bunch.
Amidst all the satire directed at Broadway and stardom, all the jabs poked at small-town thinking, and all the stage-filling choreography, what is not lost is the timeliness of The Prom’s core message that all deserve to love whomever they desire and that no one deserves to be the target of the bigoted beliefs of righteous others – especially kids in school. That many state legislatures are currently leap-frogging each other to pass ever-more repressive bills against LGBTQI youth is the setting in which The Prom now tours America. Hopefully, it will give courage to more Emma’s – and even more Barry’s, Trent’s, Angie’s and Dee Dee’s – to believe fully what Emma comes to know,
“Nobody out there
Ever gets to define
The life I am meant to lead
With this unruly heart of mine.”
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
The Prom continues through July 17, 2022, in a touring production at Broadway SF’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://broadwaysf.com/ , in person at the box office Tuesday – Sunday at varying hours (check the website above), or by calling 888-746-1799.
Photos Credit: Deen Van Meer