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Theatre in Review: The Prom (Longacre Theatre)

Christopher Sieber, Angie Schworer, Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Josh Lamon. Photo: Deen van Meer.

You may feel that Broadway is oversupplied with high school musicals -- I've certainly had my moments on this topic -- but The Prom is something different. Less earnest and lachrymose than Dear Evan Hansen, less grating and in-your-face than Mean Girls, it aims to be nothing less than the Bye Bye Birdie of 2018. And darn it if all involved don't pull it off. This disarmingly self-satirizing entertainment gets more laughs than you might imagine out of a shaky premise; it also manages to be genuinely touching and it rarely, if ever, oversells itself. On Broadway these days, that amounts to a trifecta.

Like Birdie, The Prom focuses on a bunch of showbiz types who descend on a small Midwestern town, raising havoc as they desperately pursue their self-serving agenda. The self-adoring Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman are mortified when their latest vehicle -- a musical about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt -- crashes and burns on opening night. (The book's authors, Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, come up with some delicious, school-of-Frank Rich pans, further rubbing salt in their leading characters' wounds.) Bruised by accusations of narcissism, they decide to seize control of their images, taking up some form of social activism that they can turn into a publicity blitz. Seeking "a safe, non-violent, high-profile, low-risk injustice," they adopt the cause of Emma, an Indiana teenager whose plan to take her girlfriend to the high school prom has precipitated a controversy that threatens the dance's cancellation. Joined by Trent Oliver, who manages to work his Juilliard training into nearly every sentence; Angie, a two-decade veteran of Chicago, who can't land the role of Roxie Hart even as a replacement for Tina Louise; and Sheldon Saperstein, a tart-tongued press agent and all-around fixer, they descend on an Indiana town, determined to strike a camera-friendly blow for gay rights.

Instead, this quintet of buttinskys make themselves into a collective nuisance, causing chaos at a PTA meeting -- "We're liberal Democrats from Broadway," Trent tells the terrified throng -- and bombing at a monster-truck rally where their self-penned anthem to acceptance gets them booed off the field. ("Now I know what the original cast of Carrie felt like," says Angie.) Meanwhile, Emma, who loathes the spotlight since becoming a social pariah for putting the prom in danger, is horrified at these gilded creatures who have descended from the lights of Times Square, ostensibly to fight for her. When Mr. Hawkins, the school's principal, employs a legal maneuver to get the prom reinstated, Dee Dee, Barry, et al. launch a second salvo that leads to further disaster.

At first, the creators are so adoring of the show's comic possibilities that, for a scene or two, one half-wonders if it wasn't written by Dee Dee and Barry themselves. This is especially true of the number "It's Not About Me," in which Dee Dee and the others hijack the PTA meeting; it's funny, but already alarm bells are sounding: Where can the show go from here? Fortunately, everybody takes it down a notch after that, staying on this side of the line between the farcical and the preposterous. The book also introduces some authentically serious touches: Following her coming-out, Emma was disowned by her parents and now lives with her tolerant grandmother, "who likes 'the gays'." Emma's girlfriend, Alyssa, who plans to come out on prom night, is the daughter of Mrs. Greene, the domineering, homophobic head of the PTA. And the first act ends with an astonishingly cruel switcheroo, designed to exclude Emma from the big night.

As the show delves into such darker details, it starts relaxing, effectively mixing hard-as-nails-show-folk wisecracks with a genuinely warm, welcoming attitude to bridge-building. (Except for one glaring omission -- whom does Mrs. Greene think Alyssa is taking to the prom? -- the book is tightly constructed and open-eyed about the divisions splitting the country into red and blue sectors.) In some ways, the show's stealth weapon is newcomer Caitlin Kinnunen as winsome, troubled Emma, who finds herself dragged, kicking and screaming, into a controversy of potentially national proportions. The first act benefits enormously from her numbers, including "Just Breathe," which begins with the comically forlorn advice "Note to self:/Don't be gay in Indiana/Big heads up/That's a really stupid plan." She also enjoys two blissful duets, "Dance with You" and "You Happened," with Isabelle McCalla, easy to love as the mixed-up, good-hearted Alyssa; they provide some moments of breezy charm, some breathing space amid the frantic comedy unfolding around them.

Meanwhile, the stars are out for comic blood. Brooks Ashmanskas, who has been known to go over the top, is blessedly disciplined as Barry, even when offering his dreadful Franklin Roosevelt, executing slow burns while Trent expounds on his career, or clutching his Drama Desk Award like a security blanket. He bonds beautifully with Kinnunen's Emma, forming a strange-bedfellows relationship after revealing his own awful prom story. At the performance I attended, Beth Leavel was out, but Kate Marilley stepped into Dee Dee's leopard-print ensembles with gusto, making like Eva PerĂ³n in front of the entire community, having a conniption fit over the loss of her Hamptons beach house, and reprising the eleven o'clock number from her biggest hit show to seduce Mr. Hawkins, a longtime fan. (In an especially tasty moment, she tells Mrs. Greene to look her up on the Internet: "I'm the second one that comes up, after Dee Dee Myers, whoever that is.") Christopher Sieber pontificates amusingly as Trent, whose Juilliard pretensions are constantly punctured, thanks to everyone recognizing him for the cheesy TV sitcom role that is his sole source of fame. He also does very nicely by "Love Thy Neighbor," in which he instructs a group of local teens in how Christians cherry-pick passages from the Bible to support whichever position they want to take.

Angie Schworer provides plenty of fun as Angie, the group's brains and voice of reason; she partners niftily with Kinnunen in "Zazz," in which Angie schools Emma in the art of adding jazz-hands brio to her self-presentation. The ever-reliable Michael Potts provides a crucial dose of common sense as Mr. Hawkins, who also serves as Dee Dee's love interest. As Sheldon, Josh Lamon greets his clients' latest outrages with a delicious lack of surprise. Courtenay Collins adds some humanizing touches as Mrs. Greene, especially when forced to confront the fact that her perfect cheerleader daughter likes girls.

Having just staged and choreographed Mean Girls, one fears that Casey Nicholaw may never get to drop out of high school, but he makes the most of The Prom's distinctive mix of genuine sweetness and inside-Broadway ribbing. (Check out the end of "It's Not About Me," in which Dee Dee reenacts Effie Melody White's showstopping finale from Dreamgirls, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.") When Emma pens a simple ballad, "Unruly Heart," which goes viral on the Internet, Nicholaw stages it with pleasing simplicity. And the Act I finale, "Tonight Belongs to You," which starts in Emma's bedroom, cuts across several locations, climaxes at the prom, and ends with a shocking twist, proves once again that, currently, nobody is better at building a big number.

Scott Pask, also late of Mean Girls, scores a twofer, using his research to deliver yet another series of high-school interiors. This time, he isn't working with a projection designer, so he uses an arrangement of spinning panels for fast changes while using tracking set pieces to deliver a variety of locations, including the doomed opening-night party for that Eleanor-and-Franklin musical; the school gym; an Applebee's restaurant; the grim motel where Dee Dee, Barry, and the others are forced to hole up; and the lot in obverse of a 7-Eleven-style store. The costumes, by Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman, have plenty of fun with the show folk's fashion choices, as well as the members of a touring company of Godspell who show up to provide Trent with vocal backup. Natasha Katz's lighting is slickly professional without drawing attention to itself, and Brian Ronan provides solidly intelligible sound design.

Nobody is rewriting the history of musical theatre in The Prom, but this is the kind of fast, funny, contemporary show that every season needs. It's also, I think, something of a first, putting the romance of two delightful high-school-age girls at stage center. And, like Bye Bye Birdie, it manages the trick of being wickedly knowing while simultaneously wearing its heart on its sleeve. It has plenty of zazz. -- David Barbour

(20 November 2018)

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