Having somehow missed the 2020 Netflix film version of the musical “The Prom”—which ran on Broadway in 2018—I didn’t know what to expect beyond rumored amusement. To my delight, the touring production of “The Prom” now at the Ahmanson Theatre not only offers nearly non-stop laughs, but infectious energy and enthusiasm, delivering an inspiring gay-positive message drawn from a true story.
That story (book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, who is also behind the smart lyrics) centers on Emma (Kaden Kearney, understudied by angel-voiced Megan Grosso), a high-school student in a small Indiana town who happens to be lesbian. Rather than allowing Emma to attend prom with her girlfriend, the local PTA decides to cancel the entire dance—and Emma’s fellow students blame her.
Emma’s plight reaches four middle-aged New York actors via Twitter just as they are figuring out how to save their faltering careers by become celebrity do-gooders. Fortunately, “thespian” rhymes with “lesbian” and they immediately pounce on this “cause célèbre,” idealistically singing about “Changing Lives” before rushing out to Edgewater, Indiana.
Two of the actors have just been panned by the New York Times for their performances in a new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt—which gets immediately cancelled—with both performers dubbed narcissists. Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) hilariously
fights that label for the rest of the show, beginning with “It’s Not About Me” (a song about her) as the troupe defiantly busts into Edgewater’s PTA meeting with protest signs and attitude.
Balan captures Dee Dee’s delightful diva-ness through talented singing—belting songs with verve and panache, including her second-act solo, “The Lady’s Improving,” while wearing leopard prints, gold lame and blood reds—and delivering lines with comic timing and exaggerated mannerisms reminiscent of comedian Kate McKinnon.
Dee Dee’s former co-star Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel)—equally eager to transform his self-interested image—flaunts his gayness to the PTA and applies his drag-queen sensibility to dress Emma for the prom once the PTA seemingly relents. But Barry has a poignant backstory of his own, estranged from his mother and not having attending his own prom, making his prancing second-act solo, “Barry is Going to the Prom,” all the more sweet.
Joining Dee Dee and Barry on their Don Quixote-esque quest to liberate lesbians are appealing actors Trent (Bud Weber)—a riotously self-absorbed Juilliard grad who waits tables between gigs—and “Zazz”-y Angie (Emily Borromeo)—who quits “Chicago” after being stuck in the chorus for two decades—along with PR person Sheldon (Shavey Brown), who books the group into Edgewater’s budget motel with no suite or spa.
Balancing the New Yorkers’ over-the-top schtick is staid but sympathetic high school principal Mr. Hawkins (Sinclair Mitchell), the town’s humble voice of reason. Mitchell infuses his character with a resonant clear-as-a-bell tone and upright dignity, even when he is gushing to Dee Dee about being her biggest fan as they dine at the local Applebee’s (which Dee Dee charmingly calls “Apples and Bees”).
The remaining cast includes Emma’s still-in-the-closet girlfriend Alyssa (Kalyn West, understudied by Adriana Negron)—whose inner conflicts only come out during her heartbreaking solo “Alyssa Greene”—and stalwart PTA leader Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria), who is also Alyssa’s mother.
A dynamic 20-member ensemble adds zeal, expertly executing Director Casey Nicholaw’s intricate and engaging choreography, the younger cast members bringing especially palpable energy to the prom scenes. And the entire cast fully engages in the rollicking closing number, “It’s Time to Dance.”
Rollaway sets that change with each scene are detailed and evocative, such as shabby hotel furniture upholstered in dated flowers and pastels while a water tower stenciled with “Edgewater” looms in the background. And staging is effective, except during a scene when Emma and Alyssa are both on stage but supposed to be in different places. Perhaps lighting could have been better utilized to indicate that difference.
Costumes (Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman) are also mostly on point, though the high schoolers hanging out at the 7-Eleven equivalent seem dressed almost as rag-tag as the touring “Godspell” cast members who occasionally pop up. Makeup by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira is expertly done, though, noticeably enhancing or softening cast members’ features according to age.
It is definitely well worth experiencing “The Prom,” even if it may not have been on your list of must-see Broadway musicals. You will leave happy, humming Matthew Sklar’s upbeat music (the lively orchestra conducted by Dean Balan), exhilarated by the exuberant cast, and maybe even convinced that—as per the troupe’s protest t-shirts—“We Are All Lesbian.”
“The Prom” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through Sept. 11, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $145 and can be purchased by calling the Center Theatre Group box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org. Run time is 2 hours 30 minutes, including 15-minute intermission. Masks are required.