Can you remember yours? Does it matter to you now? My first reaction to the
announcement that “The Prom” was coming to the Ahmanson was decidedly tepid, despite its having won the 2019 Tony for musical comedy. As the grandmother of four late adolescents with a recent memory of spending three hours at a mall helping one find a tie for the PROM that would “SEND A MESSAGE,” I figured I should give the musical a chance. A look at audience members arriving wearing tiaras, chiffon, and sequins proved that for others the memory was personal and alive.
“The Prom” opens in an unlikely location, Broadway. Two aging stars Dee Dee (Courtney Balan) and Barry (Patrick Wetzel) are preening after their opening night performance of a play about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a champagne celebration and Trent Oliver, the waiter (Bud Weber) fawns over them almost as much as he fawns over his own having gone to Juilliard and once having played in a sitcom. All is well in lala land until the New York Times review is brought in. It is devastating. Spirits take a nosedive with the realization that opening night is also closing night; it is probably the end of their personal road for the two leads; nor does the future look good for the hangers on. Is there anything that can be done?
Their PR manager, Sheldon, (Shavey Brown) reluctantly breaks it down for them; Dee Dee and Barry’s narcissism crashes through their acting. The audience can see it and hates it. They are not “likeable narcissists.” What could possibly redeem them? An inspired thought: Celebrity Activism. But not too aspirational. They are not going to cure world hunger. No one would notice their pitiful attempt. But there was a recent news story about a lesbian teenager in Edgewater, Indiana, who was being denied the right to bring her girlfriend to the prom. To make sure she would not be able to, the prom was being cancelled for everyone. The Broadway team will save the day for “that little lesbian whether she wants [us] to or not.” Hitching a ride with a touring Godspell company, they are sure they will bring their coastal liberal enlightenment to a backwater town in a flyover state. They cannot imagine the determination of the PTA president, Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria), real estate agent and divorced mother of Alyssa (Kaylyn West) who just happens to be Emma’s intended date.
There is meat to be had in the story. The small-mindednesss of provincial parents and the pain they can inflict. The arrogance of the woke who disdain any and all not in their mold. A serious drama could be made from the tension. But, hey man, this is a musical. Paint it big and make it brassy. Enjoy “The Prom” for the exuberance of the dancers. Know that after two and a half hours of exuberance there will be a happy ending. That happy ending could have come a half hour earlier, but editors are out of fashion these days. Some of the dancing is superb. Borromeo, trying to infuse Emma with some oomph, is dead on singing and dancing her way through “Zazz.” The male chorus at the prom itself was spectacular.
Many out-of-towners come to New York just to see the big Broadway musicals. “The Prom” is for them. It is not Sondheim, no unexpected rhythm or exquisitely tight turn of a phrase. It is not Rogers and Hammerstein where you emerge from the theater singing individual numbers. No character is deeply developed. The music in “The Prom” is generic. The enthusiasm of the cast is contagious. The costumes … what can I say? Prom dresses with sparkling sneakers set the tone. “The Prom” is entertainment and thoroughly forgettable.
I asked the grandson with whom I had shopped for the prom tie two months ago if his prom was memorable. The answer was no. He had forgotten all about our quest. I suspect that is how I will feel in October if someone asks me about “The Prom.”