Review: Thoughtful, Satisfying THE PROM at the Hippodrome

The hit Broadway musical dances into Baltimore.

NATE THE GREAT Comes to Imagination Stage

There's no rationale for homophobia; it's literally irrational, which from a dramatist's viewpoint means it's that rare subject-matter not capable of being made less ridiculous by a judicious consideration of arguments in its favor. No, not even when those arguments are based on religious scriptures. Comedic gold, in other words. Making fun of it or having fun with it does require thoughtfulness, however. In order not to overreach, a satire must not confuse the sin and the sinner; there are still lots of people of good will who somehow believe that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, or condemned by God. Demonizing them wholesale will predictably backfire. And perhaps more challenging to a satirical approach, though homophobia may be ridiculous, the serious consequences it has wrought in so many lives are necessarily sobering. So some thought is required.

The creators of The Prom, a musical whose traveling company is briefly ensconced at Baltimore's Hippodrome, doubtless saw that second problem, thought about it hard, and came up with a bold approach to it, blending a satire about homophobia with a comic fantasia on two separate tried and true subjects for loving ridicule: a) the institution of the high school prom, and b) the lives and personalities of showbiz people. Real life had already provided a template for this blending. In 2010, a Mississippi school district had closed down a prom to prevent two female high schoolers from attending as a couple, and a cadre of showbiz and music folks, headed up by the group Green Day, had come to rescue the occasion by staging a "Second Chance" prom for the LGBT kids across the region made unwelcome at other proms. That is roughly the plot of The Prom.

Proms are an interesting subject. As one of the songs says about this particular prom, "Although it shouldn't matter/ It somehow does." Much of what makes them matter often goes not quite stated, partly because everyone understands it, partly because on their surface proms are absurd acts of frivolity. Yet they are simultaneously a serious business, not only because of the dollars-and-cents consequences in terms of formal wear, flowers, dinners, chauffeurs, etc., but also because, unlike with other dances, at proms there is usually pressure to attend with a date. They are a celebration of maturity, a rite of passage -- and also (given the dates and the heavy emphasis upon the participants' sprucing up for the occasion) implicitly a celebration of the attendees' sexuality, which makes an invitation to participate an implicit demand that sexually nonconforming kids identify themselves. And in many cases, that would necessarily imply coming out, a serious thing, or in the alternative lying about themselves, an equally serious thing. And if the community is (as that Mississippi community apparently was) in denial about the sexuality of many of its kids (and the acceptability of it), the prom can be a moment of confrontation and/or reckoning for the community at large as well, which makes for drama if not so obviously for comedy.

Meanwhile, the peculiarities of showbiz folks are well-known and justly celebrated as one of the most reliable sources of jokes. In comedies from Hay Fever to Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike to the recently-at-the-Hippodrome Tootsie, thespians appear as narcissistic, shallow, irrationally optimistic, unfit for the lives of ordinary folk, dependent upon employees and business associates with real-world life skills to cope with the real world, and far more vivid than ordinary folk to boot.

That works perfectly in a setting filled with ordinary folk. The Prom plunks a nicely-assorted crew of these strange beings down in fictional small-town of Edgewater, Indiana (probably adjacent on some imaginary map to Bye Bye Birdie's Sweet Apple, Ohio), full of community spirit, hormonal teenagers, and ripe for refashioning by outsiders. The thespian crew are refugees from a disastrous Broadway musical (about Eleanor Roosevelt, no less!) closed after one performance on the basis of scathing reviews. They include Dee Dee (Courtney Balan), a belting diva to whom everyone else is the universe is little more than a prop, Barry (Patrick Wetzel), an over-the-hill matinee idol, Trent (Bud Weber), who went to Juilliard and seems to have ended his intellectual development there, and Angie (Emily Borromeo) who spent 20 years in the chorus of Chicago and quit because she never was promoted to the role of Roxie Hart. They all need a quick transfusion of good rep based on some kind of selfless act, and they seize upon the plight of Emma (Kaden Kearney), a young lesbian banned from her high school prom as the sort of thing they can quickly and effortlessly solve to the accompaniment of great and needed PR.

Of course nothing goes as planned and of course in the end everything works out nonetheless, and the show brings amazing fun to the task of showing how all that happens. The fun wouldn't happen if the underlying issues didn't receive a decent airing.

This is, after all, first and foremost, a show about homophobia, and largely the dispute is a matter of generations. The older generation, less open to acceptance of diverse sexualities, is personified in the head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J'Aria), leader of the effort to hold the line against admitting Emma and her intended date from the prom. It is not unusual for those who struggle publicly against acceptance to live private lives that in some way have gay involvements, and tellingly, unknown to Mrs. Greene, Emma's intended date is Mrs. Greene's own daughter Alyssa (Kalyn West), meaning that in resisting inclusivity she is unknowingly - or perhaps not so unknowingly - resisting her own daughter. Because there can be no doubt the truth will come out, this can go one of two ways: rupture or acceptance - and we know rupture is possible, as we have seen it in the case of Emma and her parents. What really drives Mrs. Greene is perceptively diagnosed by Alyssa in the song Alyssa Greene and it's not honest thought but compulsion, though somewhat understandable compulsion. The older-generation foil to Mrs. Greene is the principal, Mr. Hawkins (Sinclair Mitchell), who struggles, in the face of the widespread intolerance of Mrs. Greene and her ilk, to bring a humane resolution to the conflict over the prom. (Mr. Hawkins also functions as a love interest for Dee Dee.)

The younger generation have their own acceptance drama. There is a reflexive junior-division homophobia at work in the high school class, manifested mainly in bullying, but accompanied by some covert envy, since some of the bullies may be questioning their own sexuality more than they feel safe to acknowledge. And there is also a head-on confrontation with the one thing that might seem like a justification for homophobia, biblical dicta. As we all know, there are passages in the Old Testament that seem to forbid homosexuality. For serious youngsters who may for instance have gone to bible camp like Alyssa, this may seem like a substantial reason to end the discussion and reject further attempts to reason the matter through. But a song sung by Trent (Love Thy Neighbor) forcefully kicks the door open against such attempts to close it. In an echo of President Jed Bartlet disposing of an obnoxious evangelical leader in The West Wing (S2 E3), Trent lists for such kids the consequences of taking every OT prohibition equally seriously.

Kaylee has a small tattoo

That tattoo would be taboo

Kaylee, guess what waits for you

An eternity in the fiery pits of hell!

And to a kid whose mom is divorced:

Oh, divorce is a big no-no.

Not to over simplify

But the scripture does imply

That your mom will have to die

How's tomorrow if she's not got any plans?

As the above excerpts also illustrate, the lyrics, by Chad Beguelin, are exceptionally witty. And Matthew Sklar's music is never less than serviceable and at necessary times quite moving. It would be hard to get through watching the second act without misting eyes, and for that Sklar can take much of the credit, especially for the moving duet between the young lovers Emma and Alyssa, Dance with You, introduced in the first act and reprised in the finale.

The cumulative effect of all this careful thought building The Prom is that there's hardly a joke that misfires, hardly a dance step that doesn't thrill, and hardly a song that doesn't connect. It all works together, and the audience will leave utterly sated. Not to miss.

The Prom, book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, directed by Casey Nicholaw, through January 23 at the Hippodrome Theatre, The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $48-190 at Ticketmaster. Adult language, sexuality.

Production photo by Deen Van Meer.


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