Theater Review: At This “Prom” — Acceptance, Love, and Laughter
By Olivia Sutton
The Prom’s greatest strength is how the musical can be, almost simultaneously, satirical, hilarious, and nuanced.
The Prom. Book and lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Book by Bob Martin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Directed by Paul Daigneault, assisted by music director Paul S. Katz and choreographer Taavon Gamble. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, through June 10.
High school is already tough as it is. Between homework, peer pressure, and trying to graduate, the biggest reprieve you get from it all, besides football games and school clubs, is going to the most anticipated and glamorous event of the year: the prom.
That is…unless you happen to live in a conservative small town in Indiana who’s PTA group would rather cancel the event entirely than let a 17-year-old lesbian dare take her girlfriend as her date. Not to worry, because five dazzling social justice daredevils are here to save the day (and possibly save their Broadway careers!).
So break out that sequined dress and put on your dancing shoes, because we’re going to The Prom!
Inspired by a real life story that took place in 2010, the show premiered in 2016 in Atlanta and is now receiving its Boston premiere via a fabulous production led by Speakeasy Stage Company Artistic Director Paul Daigneault and a very talented team of performers and designers.
The premise: a group of narcissistic Broadway stars looking for a way to save their reputation without sacrificing their love of themselves. They find their branding solution via Twitter, where they learn about Emma (Liesie Kelly)’s plight: her high school prom has been canceled by PTA leader Mrs. Greene (Amy Barker). Taking up arms and protest signs, they wing their way to Edgwater, Indiana ready to flaunt their “activism” and save the day. The predictable results are a chain reaction of hilarious mishaps and politically incorrect missteps, mixed in with a few touching moments. Along the way, Emma, the gang, and those around them learn more about themselves. By the very end they’ve become a stronger community through the process of exploring the real meaning of acceptance.
The top-notch cast is led by Mary Callanan, a Boston native and SpeakEasy veteran who plays Dee Dee Allen, the queen bee of the Broadway do-gooders. She is joined by another longtime SpeakEasy cut-up, Johnny Kuntz as Barry Glickman. The rest of the gang consists of pretentious Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver (a hilarious Jared Troilo), charismatic PR manager Sheldon (a robust Meagan Lewis-Michelson), and former Chicago ensemble member and sweetheart Angie Dickinson (the lively Lisa Yuen). As for the high schoolers, among the standouts in a strong ensemble are Tori Heinlein and Nina Osso, both making their SpeakEasy debuts. The pair bring a hint of Mean Girls flair (minus the pink) to Kaylee and Shelby, respectively.
Last but certainly not least is our protagonist Emma played by Liesie Kelly, accompanied by Abriel Coleman as Emma’s girlfriend Alyssa. These two are dynamic presences who do right by their inspiring characters, who exude what it means to be young and in love — regardless of sexuality.
The musical’s greatest strength is how it can be, almost simultaneously, satirical, hilarious, and nuanced. An example is how it handles the conflict between Evangelical Christianity and the LGBTQ+ community. At one point, we follow Oliver as he attempts to connect with the youth in this small town. Along with suggesting (comically) that the lack of a drama program in the school might be what’s behind their bigotry, he engages them in a lighthearted yet moving discourse on other “sins” mentioned in the Bible — besides homosexuality. This culminates with the musical number “Love Thy Neighbor” — a call that we should not judge others but follow the Bible’s Golden Rule: to love one another, no matter our differences.
In addition to tackling social issues that impact LGBTQ+ youth, The Prom also pays homage to how theater not only entertains but can also change attitudes. Mr. Hawkins (Anthony Pires, Jr), Emma’s high school principal, confesses to Dee Dee at an Applebees how much the stage has meant to him over the years; he shares how deeply her performances impacted him (which surprises her given that the man is straight!). Pires’ solo “We Look to You” is a love letter to those who work in the arts, toasting the dedication and sacrifices made by those in the industry. As for the music, the scores in many musicals nowadays can be problematic. The Prom is to be congratulated for serving up such an insightful and emotional collection of tunes. Every song is a refreshing pause in the action, a chance for the characters to share their struggles and aspirations. This is quite a trick — the numbers add depth to the characterizations without slowing down the narrative, which moves forward with savvy dispatch. Audience pleasing highlights include an exuberant “Tonight Belongs to You” and the tender ballad “Unruly Heart.”
Besides the music and performances itself, it is worth noting the costume design, via wardrobe supervisor Rebecca Glick, and the choreography, courtesy of Taavon Gamble. A lot is going on at times and sometimes it can be difficult to keep but. But the joyous energy of each musical number, particularly the way the performers danced, established an unbreakable through line. The wardrobe was filled with the appropriate color and sparkle — Dee Dee and Barry were thoroughbred clotheshorses.
At its core, The Prom is a festive celebration of love in all of its forms, a high-stepping salute to the transformative effects of empathy. The musical addresses these surprisingly hot-button topics (looking at you, Florida) skillfully, its humor and compassion balancing showbiz pizazz with social commentary. Its message for a polarized country is delivered with boffo verve: everyone deserves to be loved, accepted, and respected for who they are.
Olivia Sutton is a graduate of Boston College with a BA in Linguistics. Currently she is pursuing a Masters in Journalism at Boston University. She is a contributing writer for the Arts Fuse focusing on food, wine, and the performing arts.