REVIEW: The Prom – Shining a big, bright spotlight on tolerance and acceptance

The cast of The Prom: Photo Credit – Deen Van Meer 2018

Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York

Performance Date: 06 March 2019

For teens of a certain age, the prom is a big deal. It’s a ceremonial coming of age that is a defining moment of a young adult’s life. Attendance to the prom should be a rite of passage for all teens, but in reality, they aren’t always as inclusive as they could be. New musical The Prom shines a light on what happens when someone dares to challenge the norm and defy the status quo.

When a bunch of narcissistic Broadway performers’ latest production, Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical is panned by critics, they decide that the only way to remain relevant is to jump on the bandwagon of a worthy cause. They stumble across the story of Indiana teen Emma who has been ostracised for wanting to take her girlfriend to prom, in turn causing the event to be cancelled. The group high tail it down to Indiana on a farcical trip where a hilarious comedy of errors ensues. As the group attempt to educate the small-minded town folk on acceptance and tolerance they hold a mirror up to their own selves and learn that putting someone else first for once is not actually all that bad.

The Prom made its world premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia before transferring to Broadway where it began previews on 23 October 2018, opening on 15 November. An original show by Jack Viertel, with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a book by Bob Martin, The Prom opened to rave reviews.

The Prom is a proper old-fashioned musical; it combines fine dance sequences, wonderfully directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw with a snappy and memorable soundtrack. It also boasts an incredibly talented and diverse cast who deliver the production with panache through Scott Pask’s wonderful scenic design.

Caitlin Kinnunen is utterly charming as Emma, and whilst trying to define her own identity; she faces a daily battle against everyone else’s narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Her introductory number Just Breathe is a wonderful preamble to her plight. Kinnunen produces a fine performance in which she perfectly balances Emma’s awkwardness, nervousness and vulnerability. Her defining moment being the heartfelt delivery of Unruly Heart, a beautiful ballad which perfectly articulates her desire to just be able to love who she wants to love.

Emma’s predicament is made more difficult as her girlfriend is the daughter of Head of the PTA, and openly homophobic, Mrs Greene. Alyssa, played by Isabelle McCalla, is torn between her girlfriend and her mother and she expresses this conflict beautifully during the number Alyssa Greene where she heartbreakingly sings “You’re not yourself, you’re not what she wants, you’re someone in-between”. The chemistry between Kinnunen and McCalla is convincing and authentic and their duet Dance with You is incredibly sweet as the star-crossed lovers’ dream of attending prom together with no ramifications.

What makes The Prom so clever is in the middle of this very significant story, there is a gaggle of characters that bring the comedy, the jazz hands and the show tunes in abundance.

The creatives have done a wonderful job in knitting these characters into the narrative and giving them a journey of their own, supplemented by a hilarious script and wonderful numbers giving each the chance to shine. Tony Award winner Beth Leavel is utterly uproarious as the two-time Tony Award-winning Dee Dee Allen, who carries her Tony’s around in her handbag, brandishing them regularly in a hilarious ‘don’t you know who I am’ fashion. Dee Dee’s journey is perhaps the most affecting of all. She finds a deep affinity with Emma’s high school Principal Mr Hawkins, played by Michael Potts who helps to teach her that things don’t always have to be about her.

Brooks Ashmanskas is riotous as the flamboyantly camp Barry Glickman. Barry’s relationship with Emma is both touching and real. The older gay man, mentoring the fledgeling lesbian is a beautiful arc where we get a glimpse into Barry’s own past, which despite his out and proud demeanour clearly was one of struggle. Ashmanska’s performance of Barry Is Going to Prom completely betrays his exhilaration at the opportunity for a do-over, having not attended his prom the first time around.

Angie Schworer is delightful as Angie, whom the real-life actress describes as “a jaded chorus girl with a heart of gold”. Angie has been starring in Chicago for 20 years never getting the part she truly craves – Roxie Hart. Schworer and Kinnunen’s duet Zazz is an out-and-out show tune and also affords Schworer the opportunity to showcase her incredible athleticism thanks to the clever choreography for this number.

However, the standout numbers belong to Christopher Sieber in his role as Trent Oliver, the self-absorbed Julliard graduate. His numbers The Acceptance Song (performed with Leavel and Ashmanskas) and Love Thy Neighbour are raucous show tunes with a serious message. It would be someone incredibly hard-faced who wouldn’t crack a smile at the lyrics “Bigotry’s not big of me, and it’s not big of you, let’s all work together, to make rainbow dreams come true”. 

The Prom isn’t about pushing one agenda over another; it’s about providing teenagers struggling with their identity with an opportunity to see themselves represented on stage. This is an amazing time for representation in theatre. Shows like La Cage aux Folles have been blazing a trail for years and we currently have wonderfully inspirational musicals like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, here in London which are single-handedly redefining gender and identity across-the-board. It is a real treat to witness how these musicals reach people and genuinely change lives.

It also helps when the shows are incredibly entertaining and performed with such energy, love and conviction. The Prom is shining a big, bright spotlight on tolerance and acceptance, blessed with an incredibly generous cast. This is a marvellous piece of theatre that will no doubt do incredibly well come award season – do yourself a favour and attend The Prom, your life will be all the richer for it.

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