There’s a lot to like about the new Broadway musical The Prom, including its lively songs, game cast and big heart. But the show at the Longacre Theatre also has a nagging split personality.
Two shuttered events propel the story. In Edgewater, Indiana, a prom is canceled when gay 17-year-old Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) expresses her desire to attend the gala with a girl she likes. She becomes a pariah to kids and public enemy No. 1 for one mother and PTA head (Courtenay Collins). She doesn’t want her daughter (Isabelle McCalla) exposed to lesbians. (Too late, mom.)
In New York, egomaniacal stage actors Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas), who’s wide-openly gay, and Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel), who’s a total diva, freak out after brutal reviews nail them for show-killing narcissism. Alongside out-of-work pals Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber), a Juilliard grad obsessed with his alma mater, and Angie (Angie Schworer), a dancer forever destined for the chorus, Barry and Dee Dee discover Emma’s dilemma on Twitter. They hatch a scheme to repair their reputations by helping the girl. In small-town USA, plans go awry.
The story, based on a concept by Jack Viertel, summons various elements of musical déjà vu—the PR stunt of Bye Bye Birdie, teenaged game-changer of Hairspray, bullying of Mean Girls and social media’s impact of Dear Evan Hansen. The Prom writers Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer) put their stamp on things by going into in-joke overdrive, name-dropping Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Drama Desk Awards, the now-defunct use of the term gypsy and so on. It’s broad and silly and tough to sustain over two and a quarter hours.
Fortunately, there’s a peppy score by Beguelin (lyrics) and Matthew Sklar (music) comprised of Broadway pop and plaintive ballads. Emma’s pretty, plainspoken “Just Breathe” gets inside her head. Angie’s “Zazz” is frisky and slinky. “The Lady’s Improving” lets Dee Dee belt her face off. And “Barry Is Going to Prom” allows hilarious Barry to cut loose in flamboyantly over-the-top, well, promfoolery.
The songs provide a refreshing lift, with the exception of Trent’s “Love Thy Neighbor,” a musical fast-fix for homophobia whose message is simplistic and out of place. Dee Dee’s cluelessness about things like Applebee’s, where she’s taken out for dinner by Emma’s kindly principal (Michael Potts), feels forced and smacks of a superiority complex that seems off in a show about inclusion.
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (Mean Girls, Something Rotten!) is in his comfort zone with a show with heaps of high school drama and theater puns. He guides a smooth staging and good-looking production, but his dances are so hard-edged and aggressive they’re a turnoff.
In the end, the show, like a mullet prom dress, wants it both ways. It pleads for acceptance of individuality while it traffics in extreme stereotypes. As a result, The Prom, while breezy fun, isn’t quite a crowning achievement.