Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 15, 2018
The Prom Book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. Associate director Casey Hushion. Associate choreographer John MacInnis. Music director Meg Zervoulis. Music supervisor Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Additional orchestrations by John Clancy. Music arrangements by Glen Kelly. Vocal arrangements by Matthew Sklar & Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Music coordinator Howard Joines. Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Christopher Sieber, Caitlin Kinnunen, Isabelle McCalla, Michael Potts, Angie Schworer, Courtenay Collins, Josh Lamon, Mary Antonini, Courtney Balan, Gabi Campo, Jerusha Cavazos, Shelby Finnie, Josh Franklin, Sheldon Henry, Fernell Hogan, Joomin Hwang, David Josefsberg, Becca Lee, Wayne Juice Mackins, Kate Marilley, Vasthy Mompoint, Anthony Norman, Drew Redington, Jack Sippel, Teddy Toye, Kalyn West, and Brittany Zeinstra.
Writers Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin and The Wedding Singer) know exactly who it is they expect to be filling the seats. On the one hand, there are long-time lovers of big splashy musicals featuring over-the-top performances, upbeat and bouncy show tunes (music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Mr. Beguelin), and dancers who are able to burn up the stage with unbridled energy and skill. On the other hand, there are members of a generally younger generation who have flocked to shows like Dear Evan Hansen, where they can see themselves represented on stage. Not since Hairspray has a musical pulled off this duality so well.
The Prom begins in New York at the opening night party for Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, starring the incomparable Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and, as Franklin Roosevelt, the flamboyantly gay Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas). While awaiting the reviews, Dee Dee explains to the fawning press what drew her to the role: "People need to know it's possible to change the world, whether you are a homely middle-aged first lady, or a Broadway star."
This should give you a sense of the overall tone of the show's first plotline, in which a group of self-important actors seek to disavow the commonly held belief that they are oblivious to the needs and concerns of others. "So talking about yourself non-stop makes you a narcissist?" pouts Barry, after he and Dee Dee are excoriated by the New York Times critic and Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical closes immediately.
Not only do those playing the members of the Broadway gang have juicy parts and big numbers (Act II provides for a rotation of individual in-the-spotlight songs for them), but there are two other important adult roles. Michael Potts, a standout in the star-studded production of The Iceman Cometh last season, is terrific here playing Emma's supportive high school principal, who happens also to be a super-fan of Dee Dee. And then there is the show's villain, Mrs. Greene, a homophobic Anita Bryant-like (or, if you prefer the Hairspray analogy, a Velma Von Tussle-like) conservative and head of the all-powerful PTA. In a well-performed, hissable role, Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins) is determined to prevent Emma from attending the prom with her girlfriend, who, predictably, is her own daughter (Isabelle McCalla). Unlike the pig's blood moment in Carrie, Mrs. Greene pulls off a far more realistic and therefore far more hurtful act of sheer meanness that ends the first act.
It is to the credit of the show's writers that Emma has enough self-certitude and the support of her unseen grandmother with whom she lives and of her new-found Broadway friends, especially Barry who sees her as a kindred spirit, that she does not fall apart under the barrage of cruelty. Caitlin Kinnunen is excellent as Emma and really does deserve more stage time than she gets.
None of this is to find fault in the adults; there's just such a huge abundance of talent under one roof, while there is just so much time and space for everyone. Under Casey Nicholaw's high octane direction, Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas soar in their histrionic lead roles. But there's not a weak link among the rest of the cast, who get to perform a most tuneful score, with lyrics that are smart and that actually rhyme, a refreshing change from those awful near-rhymes that pain the ear in so many musicals these days. Nicholaw also handles the choreography, abundantly energetic if a few years out of fashion for the performers who are supposed to be current high school students. Social media, something you'd expect of this age group, does come into play, but only late in the show.
Still, even if the parallel plots of The Prom don't readily co-mingle, the overall production, the theatrical in-jokes, the fine score, and the first-rate performances make for a jubilant Broadway musical that aims to please and that, more often than not, fully hits the mark.