It's Reigning on Prom Night: Broadway's "The Prom" Is a Delightful, Pro-Lesbian Musical

Prepare for a feel-good narrative about overcoming intolerance.

“We’re All Lesbians” says the T-shirts worn by jaded Broadway actors trying to help an Indiana girl bring her girlfriend to the prom in The Prom, the new musical with a book by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin), music by Matthew Sklar (Elf), lyrics by Beguelin, and direction-choreography by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls). The result manages to combine sharply hilarious spoofs of narcissistic actors with a feel-good narrative about overcoming intolerance, though interestingly, the satirical Broadway characters come off better developed than the lesbians, who are sort of earnest and pained. (Emma, the central gay gal, seems like a symbol and a plot catalyst more than a person. You don’t even get a clue as to where she and the girlfriend might canoodle—Emma’s grandmother’s place, where she lives? Fun Home this isn’t.)

The four actors are riotously portrayed by Beth Leavel, as a self-adoring thesp who became a star in a show called Swallow the Moon and who never goes anywhere without her two Tonys; Brooks Ashmanskas as a Drama Desk-winning flamer who never went to the prom, though he has plenty of gowns in the closet; Christopher Sieber as a Juilliard grad who’s been crucified as Jesus three times—four if you count the critics; and Angie Schworer as a leggy chorine who quit being understudy to Roxie Hart in Chicago after 20 years when Gilligan’s Island star Tina Louise was brought in to play the role. Savaged by The New York Times for their performances in a play about FDR and Eleanor, the first two egomaniacs gang up with the other two (and an inept publicist) and descend upon small-town Indiana to try to make the world a better place by helping the lesbian’s prom situation—but mainly to improve their press as grand humanitarians.

Deen Van Meer

In typical Broadway fashion, these hucksters turn out to be harboring some goodness deep inside—way down deep inside—and they manage to actually liberate Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), the girl who was thrown out by her parents for being a lesbian and whose noble intention of diversifying the prom is rocking the town. Initially, the abrasive arrival of the faux-caring actors tends to make the situation worse, as various vengeful tricks are played against Emma, though you can be sure things are eventually heading toward a big, old happy lesbian kiss, and the town’s raging parent (Courtenay Collins) will have to deal with it. (The woman has an annoying habit of acting like her bigoted actions are for the good of the lesbians involved, but she turns out to be their biggest obstacle.)

And the fun is in getting there, especially when Act Two brings four showstoppers—the revivifying belter “The Lady Is Improving” from Leavel, sung to her faltering fan (a very good Michael Potts as the principal); “Love Thy Neighbor” from Sieber, instructing the town’s mean girls that they’re hellbent if they really believe every word of the bible; the exultant “Barry Is Going to the Prom” from Ashmanskas; and best of all, “Zazz,” a Fosse-esque riff of jazz-handing from the delightful Schworer to the moldable Kinnunen. In the mix is an uncredited retreat of an old Charles Busch line (about tours de force that should be forced to tour), a joke about Judy Woodruff that doesn’t quite land, and one song that sounds like a Hairspray knockoff, but otherwise, things stay fun, with that slickly witty Nicholaw touch (and a bit of a Christopher Guest feel to the halftime revue the actors put on to show how caring they are).

The Prom far from a searing portrait of small town America or queer sexuality, but it doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, it’s a zippily entertaining romp involving self-discovery and zazz, with a middle-aged quartet that sings and dances their heinies off. And it’s in favor of drama departments in high schools!

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