Theater

Fun, Yet Profound: The Prom at PPAC entertains and teaches valuable lessons

National Touring Company of The Prom. Photo by Deen van Meer.

I recently read an article online that posed the question, “Can’t Broadway just be for fun?” The article stepped into the debate on perhaps the biggest existential question at the heart of theatre: should theatre be a means of escapism or an instrument for social change? The Prom is a show that demonstrates it does not have to be either/or; a show can be fun and lighthearted while also tackling social issues.

The show opens with the afterparty of the opening night of Eleanor on Broadway, a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. The jovial mood of its larger-than-life stars, the self-involved Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and “gay as a bucket of wigs” Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel), is short-lived, as a review lambasts the two Broadway legends as washed-up narcissists, resulting in the show’s immediate closure. Along with career chorus girl Angie (Emily Borromeo) and Julliard graduate chagrined by a sitcom being his only claim to fame Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), they plot to change their image by becoming celebrity activists – after all, there’s nothing a quartet of Broadway divas united in purpose cannot accomplish. Well, nothing, that is, except the most pressing issues facing humanity: climate change, world hunger and the like. Instead, they set their sights on a more humble matter: a small, Bible-thumping town in Indiana, where a high school would rather cancel its prom than let a girl attend with her girlfriend. Ready to “change the world, one lesbian at a time,” they hitch a ride with a non-Equity tour of Godspell to march on the town and change the minds and hearts of those ignorant hicks.

Enter Emma (Kaden Kearney), the lesbian in question and the very antithesis of the Broadway crew we’ve just met. As Emma, Kearney immediately wins hearts with their understated portrayal of the awkward 17-year-old – which is not to say their vocals don’t pack a punch where it counts: Dee Dee Allen may claim she is known for her belt, but perhaps Emma ought to be as lauded for hers. Of course, that is not exactly Emma’s style; she is deeply uncomfortable with all of the attention.

Team Broadway bursts onto the scene in the middle of a PTA meeting, headed up by Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’aria), the leader of the crusade against Emma. While most present are horrified at the extravagant flamboyance of these show people, it turns out the principal, Mr. Hawkins (Sinclair Mitchell), a supporter of Emma’s, is a big fan of Dee Dee’s. The two bond over trips to Applebee’s, the classiest joint in town, and their shared adoration of Dee Dee. Their relationship is charming, but probably one of the least memorable aspects of the show, as is Mr. Hawkins’s song “We Look to You” about what theatre means to him, although the lyrics “We look to you, as strange as it seems, when reality goes to scary new extremes” sparkles with relevancy post-COVID-19. 

Barry, meanwhile, develops a close relationship with Emma by trying to be the Galinda to her Elphie (musical references are rife in this show, much to the delight of any theatre lover in the audience) in preparing her for the prom. Wetzel is a joy to watch, especially in his supportive refrain of “Tonight Belongs to You” and his triumphant “Barry is Going to Prom,” which has him bouncing around the stage in giddy excitement at finally being able to attend a prom.

Though often overshadowed by the big personalities of Dee Dee and Barry, Borromeo and Weber each get moments to shine as Angie and Trent respectively. Borromeo’s moment comes in the number “Zazz,” in which through the power of Fosse, she helps Emma unlock her confidence. For Weber, it’s “Love Thy Neighbor,” a number that exists at the intersection of Book of Mormon and The Music Man in which he points out to the local youths the hypocrisy of using the Bible to justify homophobia.

It’s not until halfway through Act I we finally meet Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa Greene (Kalyn West). If that last name sounds familiar, it is because she is the daughter of the homophobe-in-chief, Mrs. Greene. As such, Alyssa is in the closet and strives for perfection. As befitting of a perfectionist character, West’s voice is absolutely flawless, and her moments with Emma are so sweet, especially their tender duet “Dance with You” and their verse in the upbeat “You Happened.”

Unfortunately, on opening night, her big solo “Alyssa Greene,” was overshadowed by horrific sound issues, rendering her virtually inaudible under a layer of jarring static. As such, the show was shut down for a half an hour while the problems were resolved. These things happen – such is the beauty of live theatre – but in all of my years going to PPAC, I have never experienced anything like it. All of the accolades to the cast (especially West for carrying on and finishing the number without falter) and the tech crew, for whom it was undoubtedly a stressful night. Once the issue was resolved, she was able to redo the number, and the show went on as it must, and with probably a much bigger laugh than usual at a line comparing listening to a television personality to listening to “radio static.” What was really disheartening to see was all of the audience members who walked out during the unexpected interlude. They absolutely missed out, since the last three numbers are among the best in the show, including “Barry is Going to Prom;” “Unruly Heart,” an LGBTQ anthem that may be one of the most gorgeous moments I have seen on the stage; and “It’s Time to Dance,” the show-stopping unleashing of unbridled energy that is the finale.

It’s not just the finale that’s bursting with energy – all of the major dance numbers, including “You Happened,” “Tonight Belongs to You” and “Love Thy Neighbor” pull out all the stops. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s staging requires a superhumanly energetic ensemble, and this one absolutely fits the bill – so much so that a stage of about a dozen performers feels like a filled-to-capacity high school gymnasium.

The writing in this show (book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin) is truly a delight. There are plenty of laughs, though never do they make light of the issue at the heart of the show. Each character feels so colorful and dynamic – Dee Dee’s way of speaking in particular is deliciously eccentric.

Though the technical issues were most unfortunate, they should not be a deterrent. These kinds of tech issues are unlikely to be repeated – surely that’s the last thing PPAC would want, after all. The Prom is brimming with joy. It is absolutely a feel good show, but also an important one. As stated in the finale, The Prom “make[s] people see how the world could one day be. It might come true if we take a chance.”

The Prom runs through March 13 at PPAC. For tickets, visit ppacri.org or call the box office at 401-421-2787. Masks are required for all patrons.

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