By Bill Hirschman
In these difficult times, sometimes all you want, all you need is a good ol’ Big Broadway Musical Comedy with a rousing score, enthusiastic performers, an unabashedly uplifting message and a kick-butt finale.
The national tour of The Prom at the Broward Center will ease what ails you.
Far, far, far better than the mediocre film version with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, this hoot of a show with a heart in a very short run skewers the ego-driven shallow cult of celebrity – primarily among the celebrities themselves – and the intolerance of Red State America.
Usually in “fish out of water” comedies, the fish are surprised to find themselves out of water and spend most of the evening trying to get back to familiar aquatic climes. But in the hilarious The Prom, the fish knowingly leap out of the bowl, certain that their unique skills will be a long-desired boon to the camels and Bedouins.
In both, the laughter subsides long enough for everyone to learn something and end the evening celebrating their new found knowledge.
The basic premise of the show is a quartet of self-absorbed Broadway-diva types are dismissed by critics in their latest Main Stem extravaganza (The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical) as being past their prime and too irrelevant to merit much consideration or attention anymore.
To get back on the front pages or the most Facebook likes, the washed-up stars seek out a cause to champion, with less altruism than opportunism in mind. They target a small Indiana town whose high school has cancelled the senior prom rather than cope with one student’s request that she be able to invite her girlfriend as her date.
The quartet and their entourage including a non-Equity tour of Godspell descend like pith-helmeted members of a Margaret Mead expedition to a benighted jungle tribe in desperate need of attitudes and enlightenment that the natives don’t know they need.
They make a Broadway style entrance at a PTA meeting: “We’re liberal Democrats from Broadway! And we are here to open your tiny minds!”
Emma, the highly likable teenager in the middle of the maelstrom, is at first mesmerized by the visitors and then angry when she has to pay a stiffer price for her resistance to the small town mores after the quartet interfere.
“I don’t want to be a symbol or a cautionary tale,” Emma says.
While the townies’ bigoted hearts and prejudiced minds are magically won over, as in most “very special” Disney/Lifetime films, the script acknowledges that the strangers in a strange land initially do more harm than good out of their self-assured ignorance and assumption of their moral (and cultural) superiority.
The two groups’ corresponding journeys are all about self-discovery and similar Aesop-worthy morals about proudly being yourself. But what makes the audience’s trip worth the effort is the gleeful collision of the spangly shallow personas of these aliens from 42nd Street and the doggedly mainstream denizens of Main Street.
With the show’s delightfully cutting send up of celebrity, its scores of easily recognizable references for theater nerds, its earnest defense of different sexual identities and its underlying affection for “everyday Americans,” The Prom is as Blue State a musical as could be designed.
The tuneful score by Matthew Sklar (Elf and The Wedding Singer) and Chad Beguelin (Elf and Aladdin) is intentionally bipolar with the Broadway bunch belting big production numbers and the Hoosiers singing in a more contemporary pop vein. And of course, every character gets a personal solo, some of them quite touching such as Emma’s love singing how she believes her mother wants her to be perfect in a subconscious attempt to get her husband to return or the couple’s “You Happened.” No matter what faults someone might carp about during the show, they are washed away with the triumphant finale “Time to Dance.”
The original Broadway cast was such an impossibly perfect fit that when reviewing it in 2018 we wondered if any other troupe could be half as good. Beth Leavel from The Drowsy Chaperone was the impossibly over-the-top diva and Brooks Ashmanskas, the veteran character actor, was the adorable co-star. But many people thought Phantom of the Opera would not last much past Michael Crawford’s contract.
Rest assured that while this crew is not of that A-Plus level, every last member comes as close as you could ask for. Every moment is played to the hilt – verbally, visually and with intentionally classic timing – by the Broadway contingent: Courtney Balan (who was in the original) as the ultimate old school prima donna; Patrick Wetzel as the always prancing, flouncing Barry who can be hilarious and touching in alternate scenes; Bud Weber as leading man Trent who is always “on” even though he is working as a waiter when we first see him, and Emily Borromeo as the leggy and still lithe dancer although her character older is than we first realize.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kaden Kearney makes Emma an engaging heroine who is less a rebel as much as simply wanting to be with the girl she loves. Through much of the evening, she has a deer-in-the-headlights look that gives way to pride and determination. Her heartfelt “Dance With You” is a warm declaration of love for her closeted partner. Kayln West makes Emma’s love perfectly plausible as Alyssa who initially caves to societal pressure rather than come out.
Every major character gets a “Who I Am” solo including Balan’s Dee Dee Allen with the 11 o’clock “The Lady’s Improving” and Borromeo’s Angie Dickinson rolling all over Emma’s bed with her “antelope legs” in a tribute to Bob Fosse in “Zazz.” The latter is designed as a purely entertaining, completely useless, non-narrative number that revels in those very aspects – a kind of dig at mainstream Broadway.
Most have strong clarion voices, although sitting in prime seats opening night, sadly we had trouble deciphering some of the witty lyrics either due to sound balancing with the propulsive orchestra or to enunciation.
But the show has two other major assets. The script suffused with every Broadway trope is wickedly funny yet compassionate thanks to Beguelin and the incomparable Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone and Slings and Arrows).
Early on, someone cites a New York Times review that characterized them all as “aging narcissists.”
BARRY: Well, we have to show the world that we’re not that.
DEE DEE: What, aging?
BARRY: No, narcissists! People who are in love with themselves.
DEE DEE: I still don’t understand what’s wrong with that.
BARRY: Wait a minute. I know how we can still love ourselves, but appear to be decent human beings. We’ll become celebrity activists!
TRENT: Yes! That avoids the Times completely!
The second strength is original director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw whose slightly off-kilter sense of humor and whose inventive choreography are a reliable constant that can be seen in every show he touches from Spamalot to Mean Girls to The Book of Mormon. The associate director, meaning the person actually helming the tour production, is Casey Husion and the associate choreographer is John MacInnes.
Disney/Aesop morals aside, The Prom is primarily meant to be sparkling fun, and in that it succeeds.
COVID Protocol: Tickets sent by cell phone and shown at the door that way. All guests age 2 and over are required to wear a suitable face covering while inside the theater. All guests age 12 and over are asked to provide documentation of a recent negative COVID-19 test OR, fully vaccinated guests provided the option of providing documentation of full vaccination status; matching photo ID will be required for adults 18 and over. Visit the Guest Policy at https://www.browardcenter.org/visit/guest-entry-policy for full details.
The Prom runs through Dec. 19 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time approximately 2 hours 25 minutes including one intermission. Tickets $30-$145. Visit BrowardCenter.org or call (954) 462-0222.