The Prom | a Curtainup Review
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The Prom

It's not the show. It's you two. You're not likable. . . nobody likes a narcissist — Publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon) explaining to diva Dee Dee Allen and co-star Barry Glickman why their show about Eleanor Roosevelt was so devastatingly reviewed.
The Prom
Beth Leavel as Dee Dee Allen and Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry Glickman(Photo by Deen van Meer)
With two hit musicals, Book of Mormon and Mean Girls, still running on Broadway, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw is now on another marquee with The Prom. It's got all the Nicholaw trademarks: a tuneful original score, a book about characters across the age spectrum who deliver a positive message along with the laughs, and lots of eye-catching visuals and peppy dance numbers.

While a Nicholaw directed and choreographed show inevitably wins awards for its leading actors, his shows' success is less dependent on featuring iconic stars than a combination of assets: lots of energetic dance numbers, eye-popping visuals and feel-good stories full of talent-showcasing roles. In short, old-fashioned musical entertainment ingredients with a contemporary sensitivity.

The Prom certainly delivers all these Nicholaw trademark elements. The actors playing the main characters are seasoned stage veterans. Several have appeared in other Nicholaw hits, notably leading lady Beth Leavel who won a well-deserved Drama Desk Award for her role as the title character in The Drowsey Chaperone.

Standby Kate Marilley pinch-hitting for suddenly ill Beth Leavel, with l-r:Christopher Sieber, Angie Schworer, Brooks Ashmanskas and Josh Lamon
But, while I've admired Leavel's performances on and off Broadway since 1999 (when she appeared in The Jazz Singer at the now defunct Playhouse 99), she's not one of those box office magnets like Bette Midler. And so, if an emergency requires her understudy to pinch hit for the narcissistic Dee Dee Allen in The Prom and that understudy plays Dee Dee without stumbling, audiences will still be able to come away with what they came for: Two and a half hours of enjoyable musical entertainment. And that's exactly what happened at the November 17th press matinee that I attended.

Usually an emergency requiring an understudy to step into a leading role involves enough advance notice for theater-goers to exchange their tickets for another date and critics to book their press reservations for another day. But my matinee booking proved to be an extraordinarily challenging case of "the show must go on" mantra. Everyone was already in their seats. A little slip inserted in our program stated that ensemble member Kate Marilley would be taking the place of a minor role player, Courtney Balan. However, just as the curtain was about to rise the two other leads, Brooks Ashmanska and Christopher Siebert, came on stage to announce that Beth Leavel was suddenly unable to go on. And so, the show would go on with Kate Marilley as the star diva role— her very first time to actually doing so!

Since I'm a voting member of two organizations likely to include Leavel as a nominee in in their leading actress in a Broadway musical slots, I will, if time permits, go back to see Leavel's Dee Dee. But Kate Marilley tackled the star role on such short notice with remarkable aplomb. She made her entrance in a little red dress instead of an elegant lame gown, delivered her lines without script in hand. She captured her character's wit and had the audience go wild over her big solo, "The Lady's Improving." And so, since my visit to The Prom was indeed as enjoyable and entertaining as it's meant to be, the comments that follow are based on that November 17th performance.

Angie Schworer and Caitlin Kinnunen (Photo by Deen van Meer)
The idea for a musical based on an actual brouhaha involving a small conservative town that shut down their prom rather than have a lesbian couple attend originated with Jack Viertel (best known as the producer of the Encores! concert musicals). It seemed a perfect way to show how divisive acrimony over topical issues like accepting or rejecting different gender identities has affected even one of our most American-as-apple-pie traditions, the high school prom. (Remember outsider teen Tracy Turnblatt's attaining a Cinderella ending as well defeating segregationist bigotry in Hairspray?)

Book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin have fused this high-school story with that of two middle-aged New York actors, Dee Dee Allen (Marilley instead of Leavel at my performance) and Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas) whose once adoring audiences now find them not only untalented but unlikable. As their press agent Sheldon Silverstein (Josh Lamon) puts it "nobody likes a narcissist." Thus, after their latest show flops, Dee Dee and Barry decide to change their image by going to small town Indiana to support a lesbian teen's cause (in the show, it's Barry who spots the newspaper story online and sees it as a means to achieve their more caring personas). They're accompanied by Silverstein, and Trent Oliver (Christopher Siebert), an actor proudly clinging to his Julliard credentials even though he's still waiting tables in between rare stage gigs and Angie (Angie Schworer) who's still hoping to get unstuck from her 20-year tenure in the chorus of Chicago.

I'm hardly giving away any surprises when I tell you that the these fading show business stars' dialogue is heavily laced with jokey theater and media insider references (shades of the Nicholaw directed Something Rotten Shakespearean spoof); or that both they and the town they invade in full over the top actorly mode are changed —for the better— by the time the curtain falls (again a tried and true Nicholaw formula, most recently evident in Mean Girls).

Dee Dee and Barry's well-intentioned but self-serving do-good trip to the conservative Indiana town is of course in full actorly mode. Ashmanskas, who's known for his flamboyantly gay roles, has pushed his high-camp style way over the top for Barry. As he assures Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), the ostracized teen, "Don't you worry, Emma. You're not alone! I'm as gay as a bucket of wigs. And I have come all the way from New York City to save you!" He does uber-gay with such perfectly timed, nimble footed flair that he makes you overlook that the show's message implies that it's time to portray people outside the "normal" gender spectrum with less stereotypical roles.

Thanks to Mr Nicholaw's fast-paced direction and generous serving of lively dance routines, the rescue mission overcomes the occasional stumbles into over-sentimental and somewhat ham-fisted humor. And the entire cast is terrific— the five New Yorkers, the embattled Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), her bigoted mom and PTA head Mrs. Green (Courtenay Collins), and Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), the pro-tolerant and theater-smitten principal.

Songwriter Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin have written a bunch of ear-pleasing songs. Though none are likely to become breakout standards, each character, even Mr. Hawkins, gets a chance to shine. The very funny Christopher Siebert delivers a rousing tolerance lesson with "Love Thy Neighbor." And her duet Caitlin Kinnunen's Emma comes fully into her own with "Zazz", a duet with Angie (Angie Schworer) (When a Challenge Lies Ahead/ And You Are Filled With Dread And Worry. Give It Some Zazz). The design work too is in keeping with the let's give them a show with lots of Broadway bells and whistles.

The inside theater references that not everyone will get plus the current plethora of shows about teens and sexual identity issues may keep The Prom from becoming a really long-lived musical classic (Book of Mormon is in its 8th year). But if it runs long enough for the usual original cast replacements, the performance that I witnessed by Kate Marilley may well make her eligible to play Dee Dee regularly.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Changing Lives (Reprise) / Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Angie and Trent Oliver
  • Just Breathe /Emma
  • It's Not About Me / Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Angie, Trent Oliver and Ensemble
  • Dance With You / Emma and Alyssa
  • The Acceptance Song /Trent Oliver, Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Angie and Ensemble
  • You Happened /Emma, Alyssa and Ensemble
  • We Look to You / Mr. Hawkins
  • Tonight Belongs to You / Barry Glickman, Emma, Mrs. Greene and Ensemble
Act Two
    Zazz / Angie and Emma
  • The Lady's Improving/ Dee Dee Allen
  • Love Thy Neighbor / Trent Oliver and Ensemble
  • Alyssa Greene /Alyssa
  • Barry Is Going to Prom / Barry Glickman
  • Unruly Heart / Emma and Ensemble
  • Time to Dance /Emma, Alyssa and Company

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The Prom
Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel
Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin
Music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin.
Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas (Barry Glickman), Beth Leavel ( Dee Allen/understudy Kate Marilley at reviewed performance), Christopher Sieber (Trent Oliver), Caitlin Kinnunen (Emma), Isabelle McCalla (Alyssa), Michael Potts (Mr. Hawkins), Angie Schworer (Angie), Courtenay Collins (Mrs. Green) Josh Lamon (Sheldon Saperstein)
Ensemble: Mary Antonini, Courtney Balan, Gabi Campo, Jerusha Cavazos, Shelby Finnie, Josh Franklin, Fernell Hogan, Joomin Hwang, Sheldon Henry, David Josefsberg, Becca Lee, Wayne Mackins, Kate Marilley, Vasthy Mompoint, Anthony Norman, Drew Redington, Jack Sippel, Teddy Toye, Kalyn West and Brittany Zeinstra
Scenic design by Scott Pask
Costume design by Ann Roth & Matthew Pachtman
Lighting design by Kenneth Posner
Sound design by Peter Hylenski
Wig and hair design by Josh Marquette
Make-up design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira Longacre Theatre
Stage Manager:Glynn David Turner
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 1 intermission
220 West 48th Street
From 10/23/18; opening 11/15/18; closing 8/11/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/17 press Matinee

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