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theatre review

Angie Schworer, left, and Caitlin Kinnunen in The Prom.Deen van Meer

  • Title: The Prom
  • Book by: Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin
  • Music and lyrics by: Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
  • Director: Casey Nicholaw
  • Actors: Brooks Ashmanskas, Beth Leavel, Caitlin Kinnunen
  • Venue: Longacre Theatre
  • City: New York
  • Year: Open-ended run

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

The first scenes of The Prom, a new Broadway musical comedy that makes gleeful fun of Broadway performers, are as deliriously funny as any musical of recent vintage.

Of course, satirizing the world of Broadway is right in the wheelhouse of the show’s co-creator Bob Martin, the Canadian Tony-winning librettist best known for The Drowsy Chaperone.

That musical was about a fictional Broadway musical – and The Prom begins at the opening-night party of another fictional one.

Beth Leavel, left, and Michael Potts.Deen van Meer

Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical’s vainglorious stars Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and Barry Glickman (the brilliant Brooks Ashmanskas) are giving self-aggrandizing interviews to an online New York theatre fansite about how their commercial show will change lives as they wait for the reviews to come in.

“Eleanor Roosevelt was a powerful, brave charismatic woman that no one had ever heard of: Her story needs to be told,” says Dee Dee, who has a reputation as an over-the-top diva. (Leavel won a Tony Award for playing another over-the-top diva in The Drowsy Chaperone and the part is written for her, with plenty of opportunities to belt it.)

Eleanor!, naturally, turns out to be a bomb and, in The Prom’s first dance moves around logic, Dee Dee and Barry react to its quick closure by deciding that they need to rehabilitate their public image as narcissists by becoming celebrity activists.

A Juilliard-trained waiter named Trent (Christopher Sieber) and perennial Chicago chorus girl named Angie (Angie Schworer) join them in their quest.

Christopher Sieber, centre, and the cast in The Prom.Deen van Meer

After exploring a number of possible causes they hope to make célèbre, the Broadway stars settle on a high school in Indiana where the PTA has cancelled prom because a teenage girl named Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) wanted to bring a same-sex date.

The actors immediately book passage to Indiana, on a bus also carrying a non-Equity tour of Godspell and a baggage compartment stuffed full of other theatre in-jokes.

“Those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, spam-eating, cousin-humping, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, tea-bagging, Jesus-jumping losers and their inbred wives,” they sing. “They’ll learn compassion and better fashion once we at last start changing lives.”

The Broadway is set in an Indiana high school where the PTA has cancelled prom because a teenage girl wanted to bring a same-sex date.Deen van Meer

American stories about big-city strangers going to small towns thinking they’re smarter than the locals, only to be outsmarted themselves, are as old as the electoral college – and The Prom promises a modern twist for a divided America.

But while the show’s creators are brave and brash in creating their silly, self-involved blue-state anti-heroes, to hilarious result, they are less confident in their rendition of the red-staters.

We get underwritten and entirely earnest portraits of teenager Emma; her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla); and Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), the progressive principal who is their ally.

Also read: Is there room for three LGBTQ-themed musicals about high-school proms on Broadway?

Songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, who tweaked Disney’s Aladdin for the stage and previously teamed up with Martin on Elf: The Musical, have created sleepy songs for the good guys that lack the wit of the others written for the Broadway clowns.

Mr. Hawkins, who turns out to be a long-time fan of Dee Dee’s and represents the Broadway audience, is saddled with a particularly sincere one that will make actual theatregoers in from “out of town” cringe: “We look to you to take us away / from the soul-crushing jobs and emasculating pay.”

The PTA villain Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins), who also happens to be Alyssa’s mother, is more meaty a part – but the homophobic teenagers who help her orchestrate a plan to thwart a court-mandated inclusive prom are cardboard cut-outs.

Caitlin Kinnunen, centre, plays teenage girl Emma in The Prom.Deen van Meer

When Trent attempts to use his Juilliard powers to reach out to one named Kaylee outside a convenience store, he asks her to tell him about herself; she replies, “Uh … I’m a girl. A teenager. I’m a cheerleader.”

You get the sense that Kaylee’s struggle to describe herself is more indicative of Martin and his collaborators' struggle to fully realize this younger generation. They are either decent to the point of dullness – or stereotypes there to dance the hyper-athletic choreography that director Casey Nicholaw (another Drowsy Chaperone alumnus) has devised for them.

Compared to the complex teens currently populating Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, or even the mean girls in Mean Girls, The Prom falls short – perhaps out of fear of being disrespectful to the serious issue at the centre of the show. Handling the kids with kid gloves, however, only makes them fade into the background of the actors' antics.

Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen break in to a dance.Deen van Meer

That it’s possible to tickle the funny bone while addressing the issue of homophobia is clear in the journey of Barry Glickman – who may initially turn to his activism for selfish reasons, but eventually is brought down to earth as he remembers his own struggles growing up gay in another era.

Ashmanskas, the magnetic comedian who plays Barry, is impossible to take your eyes off. With every leg kick or exaggerated dropped jaw, he redeems even the campiest bit of shtick. Each of his entrances is a guaranteed giggle fit.

Broadway is increasingly courting a younger demographic – with last season seeing a record 2.1 million kids and teens under 18 attending a show. The Prom had the potential to bridge audiences by being two musicals in one: A sharp showbiz satire catering to older theatregoers, and a teen drama drawing a younger set. It’ll win over the first crowd, but, on the latter front, this satire about out-of-touch artists ends up itself seeming a little out of touch.