“The Prom”: Celebrities Want Posterity, Find Purpose

Tori Heinlein (center) and ensemble. (Photo via Nile Scott Studios)

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Book & Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Book by Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Music Direction by Paul S. Katz
Choreography by Taavon Gamble

The Huntington at the Calderwood Pavilion / BCA
527 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116
May 5–June 10, 2023

To purchase tickets, visit SpeakEasy Stage

Review by Gillian Daniels

BOSTON, Mass – The Prom begins as an unsentimental, comic takedown of show business opportunism. Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Mary Callanan) and leading man Barry Glickman (the charismatic Johnny Kuntz) look to soften their public image after their recent musical flop by utilizing a viral controversy in the midwest.

With the help of enterprising, eternal chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Lisa Yuen) and verbose Julliard alum Trent Oliver (Jared Troilo), the musical superstars descend on the unsuspecting Edgewater, Indiana. There, the sardonic plot shifts into a thoughtful exploration of small-town politics as teenage lesbian Emma Nolan (Liesie Kelly, a standout in a show of powerhouse performances) reluctantly fights the PTA just to take a girl to prom.

Liesie Kelly rends audience hearts as they successfully channel a shy, queer kid sailing the choppy seas of thoughtless peers and midwestern-flavored bigotry. Their voice brings aching vulnerability to numbers like “Just Breathe” and “Dance with You.” Emma’s priorities have nothing to do with New York City theater and everything to do with teenage peers swept up in the hormonal excitement of dance preparations and cringe-y “promposals.”

Like the harassed and dogmatic PTA president, Mrs. Greene (Amy Barker), Emma is shocked when Broadway actors show up to charge into very delicate, very public negotiations with all the care of singing, dancing bulls in a China shop. It’s up to Principal Hawkins (Anthony Pires Jr.) and Emma to convince the guileless actors they can’t defeat homophobia with a well-placed song. Music may be powerful, but its purpose has more to do with affirmation and joy than immediate, concrete social change.   

Director Paul Daigneault moves the story at a strong clip. The audience has to endure broad, cruel portraits of narcissistic celebrities before we can see our heroes take on insidious bigotry. Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman are unfortunately recognizable as clueless celebrities who have decided they’re activists without any interest in doing tough, nuanced work. Once they get to know the community, which includes dining at Applebee’s and leveraging Trent’s work on a popular sitcom, then they can make some headway on changing minds.

Even then, the road of progressive change is full of potholes. The high school PTA claim they just want to keep their kids “safe” (a refrain heard in every major American social panic from the past century) and Emma’s straight peers just want a school function away from public criticism. Despite The Prom’s cheery veneer, we have to go through the emotional ringer before we can earn anything like a neat, happy ending.

The show works as well as it does due to the energy on display. Abriel Coleman hands in a fragile, nervy performance as perfectionist adolescent Alyssa Greene and Meagan Lewis-Michelson keeps the comic relief fizzing. Every line, dance move, and note is delivered with care and enthusiasm thanks to the work of Music Director Paul S. Katz and Choreographer Taavon Gamble.

The Prom could have just been a feel-good comedy that evaporates from memory as soon as the curtain goes down. Instead, it burrows into its audience’s hearts. It may not single handedly change the minds of the bigots who rant against gay kids at prom, but it’s certainly a welcome affirmation of queer joy.

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