One thing's universal, life's no dress rehearsal…
If any one lyric of The Prom's score could sum up its story of identity, activism, and living proudly as your true self, it's that — the reminder that we only get one life to be good, selfless, kind, courageous, and ourselves. So, why not start now?
That message is on full-hearted display in the national tour of the musical, now playing at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. A rare original musical (i.e. not based on existing IP) from someone not named Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Prom was a delight on Broadway before getting a decidedly less interesting film adaptation that was more enraptured by its starry casting than the scruffy story at its center.
I'm happy to report The Prom has returned to its original form here, a slightly messy, but altogether delightful entry in the musical theater canon. It follows Emma (Kaden Kearney), a high school student who dreams of taking her girlfriend to their senior prom, but has her plan foiled by the homophobic PTA and the unsuspecting mother of said girlfriend.
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When Emma's story pops up on Twitter, four Broadway has-beens — Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan), Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel), Angie (Emily Borromeo), and Trent Oliver (Bud Weber) — see a PR opportunity in Emma's situation. They descend upon her small Indiana town and wreak havoc, as everyone learns a lesson of tolerance and selflessness along the way.
There's a warmth here that was missing from The Prom's cinematic rendering, a genuine care underneath the Broadway stars' comedically rendered narcissism. Partly that lies in the quartet's deft approach to their work. Patrick Wetzel's queen-y Barry is deeply wounded, a fact evident in the gentleness with which he handles Emma from early in the proceedings. There's no mugging or over-the-top flimsy wrists that border on offensive; instead he's a fully drawn human being — someone who has found acceptance and community in his campy bitchiness, but who has a wealth of love to give at his core.
Borromeo's Angie is quirky and fun, and she shines in her Fosse send-up "Zazz," nailing the feline grace of the choreography. And Weber's Trent is delightfully goofy and out-of-touch, but in a way that will surely make most of the audience recognize him as someone they know.
The show has always really been Dee Dee's though, and Courtney Balan makes a meal of the histrionic diva who claws some long-buried empathy out with the help of Emma and Principal Hawkins (a jovial Sinclair Mitchell). Balan's Dee Dee is a self-obsessed actor plucked from a Kristen Wiig SNL sketch, and at times that veers into caricature (which has varying degrees of mileage depending on audience taste). But by the second act, she settles into a groove that sells Dee Dee's transformation into a better human being with aplomb. It helps that Balan's voice could tear down not just a house, but a high school gym, a talent especially on display in her pivotal number, "The Lady's Improving."
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Emma, as portrayed by non-binary performer Kaden Kearney, remains the heart of the storytelling — her simple desire to dance with her girlfriend at prom twisted into something far beyond her control. Kearney is gracefully unassuming, never allowing the frenetic chaos around Emma to overwhelm their steady presence as the calm at the center of the storm.
The Prom's book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin is deceptively smart in the ways that it both champions owning one's identity and combats intolerance, while also spearing wokeness that is purely performative and not steeped in any true empathy or desire to effect change. This entire cast delivers on that, walking the tight-rope of the show's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and its big-hearted message.
The ensemble also deserve a shoutout for keeping the energy high throughout, knocking out impressive dance numbers and nailing Casey Nicholaw's fresh, gymnastic choreography with pep and crispness.
Honestly, like its namesake, The Prom is a charming, if somewhat forgettable bauble, but it will also send audiences out into the night with glitter in their hair and a song in their heart — and what more can we expect from a night at the prom? B+