BWW Review: Brooks Ashmanskas Gives a Classic Musical Comedy Star Turn in Hilarious and Touching THE PROM
Let's cut to the chase. The Prom is a great musical comedy on the same level as HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and THE PRODUCERS. Brooks Ashmanskas, the flamboyantly-styled song and dance man with a razor-sharp comic flair who has spent over twenty years on Broadway stealing scenes in supporting roles, is now giving a great musical comedy star performance that should rank up there with the classic turns given by Robert Morse, Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane in those smash hits.
But this is no one-person operation. Working from an original idea from Jack Viertel, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, bookwriters Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (who penned the consistently clever lyrics) and composer Matthew Sklar are all at the top of their games in creating an achingly funny show that periodically pauses the hilarity to break your heart with beautifully expressed emotions and to proudly advocate for an inclusive society that recognizes the importance of arts education.
The first scene takes us to the opening night party for "Eleanor! - The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical" starring Broadway belter Dee Dee Allen. The Prom's leading lady, Beth Leavel, gives a knockout performance of swaggering brassiness as the self-absorbed, not terribly bright icon who was drawn to playing "a powerful, brave charismatic woman that no one had ever heard of."
Ashmanskas plays Barry Glickman, Dee Dee's approval-hungry leading man who co-stars as FDR. As reporters gather, they sing of how starring in important Broadway musicals allows them opportunities to change lives for the better. ("By the time I get tuberculosis in act two / Even the people who are dead inside will shout 'Bravo!' on cue.")
But after some constructive criticism from the New York Times ("If you are considering buying a ticket to this show, do yourself a favor; buy a few feet of good heavy rope instead and then go hang yourself."), it's quickly determined that the next stop for "Eleanor!" will be the wall of Joe Allen.
The show's overworked press agent, Sheldon (harried Josh Lamon), explains that the two stars just aren't likable, and that their narcissism shows through in their performances.
So Dee Dee and Barry set out to find a cause to support that will help them earn favorable press as celebrity activists.
When their Fosse-dancer pal Angie (Angie Schworer, full of zazzy showgirl flash) finds a trending story about a high school in Edgewater, Indiana that is considering cancelling its prom because a lesbian student named Emma wants to attend with her girlfriend as her date, an inspired Barry sings, "We're gonna help that little lesbian, whether she likes it or not!"
Joined by their classically-trained actor pal Trent (plummy-toned Christopher Sieber, dripping with overdramatics) the gang barges in on a PTA meeting just as it looks like school principal Mr. Hawkins (sturdy, likable Michael Potts, invaluably grounding the proceedings) may have the matter straightened out. But after alienating the townies by declaring themselves as "liberal democrats from Broadway" who have "come to pry open your tiny little minds," it's back to square one.
Originating her first Broadway lead, Caitlin Kinnunen makes Emma a completely endearing and admirable role model, bravely fighting her fears to do what's right. There are poignant scenes with her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (lovely work by Isabelle McCalla) and the two of them share a gem of a ballad, "(I Just Wanna) Dance With You," which is destined to become a wedding reception favorite.
But the central relationship of the musical is the friendship that develops between Emma and Barry, who, as he gets to know the young girl, stops seeing her as way to help his career and is deeply moved by the courage she displays that he was incapable of as a closeted teenager. It's in these moments that Ashmanskas, still wonderfully funny, shows Barry's hidden tender side, making the audience love him all the more when he bursts into a giddy 11 o'clock number, twirling in the air with glee at the prospect of finally being able to attend a prom.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hawkins, a theatre fan who has had a long-time celebrity crush on Dee Dee, is disappointed to discover the motivation behind her support of Emma, so she's determined to show the attractive, single straight man that she can act selflessly. It doesn't come naturally.
Sieber's expressive baritone and expert comic chops can be savored in an act one spoof of activist power ballad anthems, "The Acceptance Song," and an act two gospel rouser warning against cherry-picking which Bible lessons to follow. Schworer and Kinnunen make with the razzle-dazzle in a number where Angie teaches Emma how to cover up her shyness with some patented Fosse moves.
And special kudos to Courtenay Collins, who does fine work as Alyssa's mom, who is unaware of her daughter's sexuality and is leading the campaign to prevent same-sex couples from being prom dates. It would have been easy to make the role a comical villain, but instead the authors make it clear that she's honestly trying to protect the community's children from people who make "lifestyle choices" that she doesn't understand. Collins' sincere performance helps bring home the message that no matter how many laws you pass, change only happens when you change the way people feel.
And along with all the laughter, there's a great deal of feeling in The Prom, a musical that helps prove there's no better spectacle on Broadway than inspired writing, terrific melodies, big enthusiastic performances and a production loaded with honest-to-goodness heart.