Broadway is a strange beast that consumes and assimilates any story it finds, making it big and broad and full of razzle dazzle.
“The Prom,” currently playing at BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre, is certainly a case in point. It’s also in part about that very tendency that Broadway has.
The musical is very loosely inspired by the real-life story of Mississippi high school senior Constance McMillen being banned from her prom in 2010 because she planned to bring her girlfriend as her date. The story and characters in “Prom” are fictional, borrowing just a few major plot points from what actually happened.
On another level, the show is a loving satire of Broadway. Four Broadway performers decide to storm into the small conservative town (in this version, Edgewater, Indiana) to save the day as a publicity stunt to revitalize their careers.
Many of the catchy songs by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin (“The Wedding Singer,” “Elf the Musical”) are pastiches of other Broadway songwriting teams or classic musical styles. Based on an idea by Jack Viertel, the book by Bob Martin and Beguelin is similarly packed with Broadway in-jokes that aren’t too “in” for a general audience, and other clever quips.
After premiering in Atlanta in 2016, “The Prom” hit Broadway in 2018 and was made into a star-studded 2020 Netflix movie. The version hitting the Golden Gate right in time for Pride celebrations is the U.S. national tour, which makes a lyric about a fictional Eleanor Roosevelt musical that the characters thought would be a hit seem all the funnier: “This tour-de-force will not be forced to tour.”
The ostracized high school lesbian here is Emma, overwhelmed and cringing in the spotlight, played with endearing introverted earnestness by Kaden Kearney. Kalyn West’s Alyssa, Emma’s closeted girlfriend, is anxious and much more closed-off. Alyssa’s mother is the homophobic head of the PTA, portrayed with overbearing bullheadedness by Ashanti J’Aria.
This being a big and broad Broadway musical, the characters are more types than fleshed-out individuals. Courtney Balan is comically flamboyant as narcissistic Broadway diva Dee Dee, still reeling from vicious reviews closing down her latest show. (Both Balan and West were in the ensemble of the Broadway production.)
Self-avowedly “as gay as a bucket of wigs,” Patrick Wetzel’s more mildly self-enamored Barry bonds with Emma in a way that we don’t really see develop except that she expresses great fondness for him in the dialogue. Bud Weber’s preening Trent, a struggling actor remembered only for a ’90s sitcom, is given to pollyannish sermonizing and bragging about Juilliard and his own handsomeness. Angie, a dancer played with quirky charm by Emily Borromeo, has been stuck in the chorus of “Chicago” for 20 years waiting for her turn to play Roxie.
They’re all hilariously condescending toward small-town Middle America in a way that no one except the villain of the piece ever really calls them on.
Sinclair Mitchell’s sympathetic Mr. Hawkins, the high school principal, is seemingly Emma’s only real ally in town. And of course he also turns out to be an avid fan of musicals and of Dee Dee in particular.
It’s a fun show. Director Casey Nicholaw also did the energetic choreography that really kicks into high gear in the ensemble prom scenes. Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman’s costumes are entertainingly gaudy and glittery, and Scott Pask’s versatile scenic design brings a multitude of locations to life.
As much as it pokes fun at its characters for spending more time ruminating about their Broadway careers than the human stakes of the matter at hand, the musical really does the same thing. Emma’s real pain is largely a vehicle for the redemption arc of these amusing but thinly constructed showbiz types.
It’s also a show whose issues are timely in a way that almost eclipses its impact. In a year when right-wing politicians nationwide are actively pushing anti-LGBT legislation as a wedge issue with renewed vehemence, especially in schools, there’s something almost quaint about this feel-good take on old-fashioned homophobia and the social progress that promises to eventually, inevitably leave that bigotry in the dust.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, presented by BroadwaySF
Through: July 17
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $56-$256 (subject to change); www.broadwaysf.com
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