A heartwarming tale of acceptance

By: Aug. 07, 2023
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I had mixed expectations going into Theatre Raleigh’s production of The Prom. On one hand, I absolutely adored the musical on Broadway; I have fond memories of my friend and I turning to each other during “Unruly Heart” with tears streaming down our faces. However, I very much disliked Ryan Murphy’s 2020 film adaptation, feeling that it had lost everything that made The Prom beautiful. It’s not the easiest show to pull off; it requires the right sense of humor in its actors, great dance abilities, and the right amount of heart to make its critiques of both liberals and conservatives alike not feel catty. 

But when has artistic director Lauren Kennedy Brady not pulled off a feat, despite any seeming difficulty? Director Tim Seib clearly understands what makes The Prom work and delivers it in spades. For those unfamiliar, the musical follows four failing Broadway actors who journey to smalltown Indiana in the hopes that helping a young lesbian student who was banned from the prom will revive their careers. It’s a ridiculous concept designed to make fun of the kind of meaningless, passive activism that has seemingly become even more rampant since The Prom debuted in 2016. 

Review: THEATRE RALEIGH'S THE PROM The show isn’t afraid to take its shots at both the bigoted and homophobic people of the Indiana PTA and the “liberal Democrats from Broadway” who storm into a town, looking for praise on social media without considering what the girl at the center of it all wants. And Emma is truly the beating heart of the prom, as she yearns for a world in which she can attend the prom with her closeted girlfriend without being made a scapegoat for her classmates and their parents’ anxieties about queer people. 

Theatre Raleigh’s production works largely due to the unassuming charm and strength of its Emma, college student Ella Frederickson. She’s able to find pathos and humor even in the occasionally clunky parts of Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s book, and her voice is beautifully well-suited to songs like “Just Breathe.” She also has lovely chemistry with Lav Raman, who portrays her cutesy cheerleader girlfriend, Alyssa, who is dealing with more than she lets on at home.  

The entire ensemble of high school students is strong, especially in songs like “You Happened.” Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s music and lyrics are a highlight of the show, as they range from upbeat group numbers to the Fosse-esque “Zazz” to the heartfelt ballad “Alyssa Greene.” 

Review: THEATRE RALEIGH'S THE PROM The other main members of the cast are the Broadway quartet. Daniel James Canady is excellent as Juilliard graduate Trent, whose showy “Love Thy Neighbor” shows the Indiana teens their own hypocrisy. Kate McMillan’s Angie might be a perpetual chorus girl, but her stage presence shows why she isn’t. Amy Spanger’s Dee Dee Allen is every bit the diva, taking a very different approach to the character than Beth Leavel or Meryl Streep did but still deliciously pulling off the narcissism. And Tedd Szeto is a scene stealer as the school principal Mr. Hawkins, who is eager to fight the injustice taking place in his school while still remembering to center Emma and her experience. 

The real star, though, aside from Frederickson’s Emma, is Josh Franklin as Barry. He and Frederickson very convincingly sell the special bond between Emma and Barry, as he provides one of the first gay mentors she’s had and someone who understands her position better than most. His exuberant “Barry Is Going to Prom” brought me to tears. 

Theatre Raleigh’s small stage setting works well for The Prom, and Benedict Fancy’s scenic design does a great job of bringing a small town high school to life. Malissa Borden’s costumes – particularly those for the prom scenes and for diva Dee Dee Allen – are beautiful and lend themselves well to Lisette Glodowski’s energetic choreography. I also have to commend Theatre Raleigh for having an intimacy choreographer, Heather Strickland, rather than asking the director to figure it out on his own. 

Review: THEATRE RALEIGH'S THE PROM The Prom is a perfect show for people of all ages as the fun choreography and flashy costumes will keep you engaged, but the sweet message will remind you of the importance of acceptance. It’s a reminder of what it’s like for young queer people growing up in smaller towns where acceptance is still far from ensured, and something as simple as a girl wanting to bring her girlfriend to the prom can spark a massive upset. It also asks those of us in the theatre community to examine our own biases, whether we approach situations like this in a way that can actually bring about change, and if we’re doing it for the right reasons. The Prom is a simple but important show, and I not only commend Theatre Raleigh for their wonderful production of it, but also for choosing it for this season. 

The Prom is playing at Theatre Raleigh through August 13. For more information, please visit

Photo Credit: Jennifer Robertson


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