Maybe THE PROM should change its name to THE KISS.
Television history was made on Thanksgiving Day by two actresses who play girlfriends in the warmly received musical. They showed their characters’ depth of affection to about two dozen million viewers across the country.
Hard-line fans of Leviticus were appalled. But if the statement that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is true, THE PROM will run far longer than a student’s elementary and secondary education.
That’s the fate – and run – THE PROM certainly deserves.
Composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin have delivered an opening number that has the sound of classic musical theater. And why not? It takes place at the opening night party of a Great Big Broadway Show – a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt.
Does that sound ridiculous to you? It wouldn’t to Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, who actually wrote a musical about the nation’s longest-serving First Lady. Years before that, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields did one as well. In fact, “It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish)” was originally written for that show and only later inserted into SEESAW.
However, the team that wrote the Eleanor Roosevelt musical cited in THE PROM must have done a poor job, for this ELEANOR closes on opening night. The critics also took aim at stars Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, calling them narcissists, which they staunchly rebut. And yet, how will these guilty-as-charged egomaniacs prove otherwise?
Much as the Queen of the B-movies did in the 1941 musical BEST FOOT FORWARD — attending a prep school cotillion for publicity purposes – Barry and Dee Dee, along with fellow thespians Trent Oliver and Angie (No-Last-Name), decide to attend a prom in Indiana which has recently made the news. Emma, a senior at Edgewater High, wanted to bring her girlfriend to the event and was immediately told no. If she even tries, the event will be canceled.
The stars decide that getting Emma and her girlfriend to the prom is worth fighting for – or, to be more accurate, will get their names on the Internet, TV and in newspapers (probably in that order). Their goal is to “appear to be nice people.”
They’re so self-absorbed that they don’t even see how superficial that statement is. Oh, if they can “change the world one lesbian at a time,” that’d be all right, too. But their own venal motives are in first place (and second through ninth, too).
As an equally worthy and still-running musical mentions, that’s only for now. Surely you know that there’s no people like show people so they’ll all become emotionally involved with the young lovers.
The hard part would be to make us believe how they change. Bookwriters Beguelin and Bob Martin do a superb job in convincing us.
The big moment for Barry comes when he hears that Emma’s parents have cut her out of their lives. So did his family when he came out. Barry sees that the fight is not a mere stunt to aggrandize him. He now has a need to care for his new surrogate daughter.
At this point, some of Barry’s flamboyant behavior gives way to his acting like a real human being (and more than he might have thought he had inside him). Brooks Ashmanskas maneuvers extraordinarily well throughout.
Decades ago, Broadway played host to IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL? which suggested that we never quite get over our high school years. Ashmanskas’ eleven o’clock number indicates that that long-ago show had a good point.
Ashmanskas also has one dance move that’s a funny tribute to WEST SIDE STORY. Did he or choreographer Casey Nicholaw think of it?
Nicholaw directed too with the finesse and slickness that shows why he now has four musicals on Broadway. A major reason for the show’s success is that Nicholaw knows the best place to stage a musical is close to the edge of the stage. He keeps us there almost all night long.
However, Dee Dee looks as if she won’t stay in Indiana another night. The actress, who’s shallower than the remaining water in a drained swimming pool, is ready to drop the crusade when matters involve money. Trouble is, she along with everyone else is needed to combat Mrs. (No-First-Name) Greene, the PTA’s representative and instigator (a very centered Courtenay Collins).
At one point Mrs. Greene explains to the press what so many like-minded people say in situations such as this: that they’re really “worried about the child’s safety.”
Oh, please! This approach used to be a good spin on the truth, but even the most dense have heard it so often that they must now see through it. Many audience members who hear it may wish that one of the school’s teachers – perhaps Professor Plum? – will kill Mrs. Greene in the ballroom with a candlestick, rope or anything else on hand.
However, Martin and Beguelin are fair to her as well. The last line they give her may not be first and foremost what she believes about lesbians, but even the most militant gays will admit that she has a point.
Martin and Beguelin have also admirably handled Mr. Hawkins, Edgewater High’s principal. He’s not only getting intense pressure from Greene, but also from townies who literally cringe in fear when gays and supporters of gays walk anywhere near them.
Yet Hawkins was inclined to uphold Emma’s civil rights even before the stars came to town. Lest he waver, Dee Dee uses her wiles on this admitted ardent and longtime fan. See if she can manipulate him.
Emma’s brave about the whole thing. “It wouldn’t be high school without a test,” she laments in one of Beguelin’s best lyrics. Later, in one of Sklar’s finest melodies, she tells her beloved with genuine emotion that “(I Only Want to) Dance with You.” As the excellent Caitlin Kinnunen sings, “All it takes is you and me and a song.” It’s all so poignant because that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? The damn thing is a dance — so let the kids dance.
Also struggling is Alyssa (a notable Isabelle McCalla), the object of Emma’s affection who’s not nearly as courageous. In her second-act aria, Alyssa mourns about having a mother who demands perfection: “You have to be on the debate team – on that, there’s no debate,” she laments. But just when we think the number is simply about the demands made on her to overachieve, Alyssa tells us something far more revealing: “Mom is convinced that if you’re perfect, Dad might come back.”
“You’ve got to be the real face of this story,” Barry tells Emma. When he gets her the chance to be on TV and take her message to the nation, she rejects the offer – and we understand why. And yet, Emma inadvertently helps herself in a very different way. You’ll be nodding in agreement and admiration when you see how she effectively handles the situation.
Scott Pask has designed a series of sets that looks economical but not cheap. He has a good inside joke, for when the New Yorkers arrive at the place where they’ll be staying, the “T” in the neon “Motel” sign is out – and the next time we see it, the “E” and “L” have died, too.
And how’s Beth Leavel as Dee Dee? I don’t know; she was out at the performance I attended. So if she’s M.I.A. when you attend (which you must) and Kate Marilley is in, stay in your seats. It’s the finest performance I’ve seen from an understudy in more than 40 years (when an unknown Christine Ebersole went on for Judy Kaye and excelled in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY).
Two other important ingredients make THE PROM significant. First, it celebrates how much can be accomplished when adults and teens work together. Second, it makes a strong point when Trent (an amusing Christopher Sieber) tries to get the Edgewater High kids interested in theater. “We don’t have a drama program” one teen tells him – which makes him immediately say “That explains your lack of empathy.”
You bet. If only school budgets allowed for theater programs instead of spending that money on new decals for the football team’s helmets, the country would be so much better – and empathetic.
So THE PROM doesn’t only editorialize about LGBTQ rights – although that issue may remain at the forefront since that Thanksgiving Day Parade. But given that some people in the country believe in “alternative facts,” how about this one? The reason Emma and Alyssa were kissing was simply the result of their excitement at being part of a wonderful and valuable hit musical.