Review: West Orange High School Thespian Troupe 1983 Makes History With Their Production of THE PROM


By: Mar. 19, 2023
Review: West Orange High School Thespian Troupe 1983 Makes History With Their Production of THE PROM

"And know I'm changing lives!" --Dee Dee Allen in THE PROM

Imagine going back in time to 1965 in order to perform Dutchman in Selma, Alabama. Or, using the same time machine, venturing to 1930s Germany to stage Cabaret. That's the feeling I got when watching West Orange High School students courageously perform THE PROM at the state Thespian festival in Florida in 2023. You know you're living in sad times when the performance of a beloved gay musical by a high school with a top performing arts program is deemed an act of bravery. But that's the current state--of Florida and of mind--that we're living in.

If you've ever been to a state Thespian festival, then you know that thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic teenagers converge on downtown Tampa for several days. They fill the streets, the Straz Center, the Tampa Theatre and the Convention Center. All of these young people, with the one commonality being their love of theatre, get together to be adjudicated in acting, musical theatre and tech categories. Some high school shows (called "mainstage productions") are adjudicated by professionals and theatre educators beforehand and are brought to Tampa to be viewed and celebrated by their peers. This year's amazing crop includes Brave New World, Boeing Boeing, Mamma Mia and The Crucible. The mainstage show that I had the honor of attending for its final performance--the one with all the buzz throughout the festival--was THE PROM, with music by Matthew Skylar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and the book by Beguelin and Bob Martin. (It was performed at West Orange High School last October as well as March 3-5 and, for Thespians, at Blake High School for two nights, March 16-17.)

Orlando's West Orange High School, led by director and theatre teacher extraordinaire Tara Whitman, has made history since this is the first high school in the country to tackle this buoyant and flamboyant musical. It's a feel-good rainbow flag of a show that heartily puts the gay in gaily! To watch such a production is a thrilling, heartwarming experience. Not just the splendid work on the stage by the young cast but the reactions of the numerous teens who cheered the show and its gayness like they had just gotten front row tickets to a Taylor Swift concert.

It's a show that makes your soul feel good. That said, the reality of our current situation in this state, like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, cannot be ignored. James Madison High School, the fictional school in THE PROM, may be located in Indiana, but it can represent many if not most high schools in Florida these days.

The story centers around seventeen-year-old Emma, a lesbian who wants to take her girlfriend, Alyssa, to the Prom. So, what do the homophobic Powers That Be decide to do? They cancel the festivities altogether. Enter a group of New York celebrities, including diva Dee Dee Allen and the ultra-gay Barry Glickman, who come to Indiana to help Emma (it will give them good publicity). The townies go crazy and, by a court order, open the Prom back up, but with a hitch: They have two events going on at the same time--The official Prom, that only our lead, Emma, winds up attending alone; and a second clandestine Prom, where everybody else in school, including Emma's closeted girlfriend, shows up. Will Emma finally get her Prom? Will the celebrities help, or hurt, her cause? And will all the shenanigans lead to a hopeful happy ending?

Weird as the PROM plot may seem, it's actually based on the true events that took place in Mississippi in 2010 (yes, even the "fake Prom" storyline is factual).

Obviously the cast and crew of this gigantic undertaking have to be applauded. There must be something magical in the water at West Orange High School because this is their third mainstage in recent years (they also performed Bright Star a few years back and Pippin just last year).

This being a high school production, this PROM sometimes seems an uneven affair, with a lull near the start of Act 2 when the story should be moving forward; it takes awhile to get back on track (it's like the story is put on pause for a few clever songs). The acting and voices range from oh-my-God stellar to simply passable. But it's the goodwill and the breathtaking energy of the piece, breathed to marvelous life by the onstage actors and the hardworking crew, that we take with us. I left the theatre surrounded by the excited young Thespian audience, and you could see the joyous smiles on everyone's faces.

Leading this production is high school senior Megan Stringer as Dee Dee Allen. The young performer has it all: crack comic timing, singing that's out of this world, and the ability to inhabit a character with aplomb. She reminded me of a yon Patti LuPone, and I could have sworn she was in her thirties or forties. You want to shout "Fabulous!" whenever she's on the stage. As her partner in their Saving the Gays crusade, senior Kevin Mercier is hilarious as the scene-stealing Barry, sometimes donning a jacket so colorfully loud that it looks like a Jackson Pollack action painting.

As Emma, the student in the center of the brouhaha, junior Delaney George has incredible vocal chops and will break your heart, as in the scene when she opens her locker only to find a stuffed animal (a bear) hanging from a noose, a gift from homophobic classmates. Her songs, including the heart-tugging "Just Breathe" and meaningful "Unruly Heart," are beautifully rendered. We're on Emma's side the whole time, rooting for her, wanting only the best. She also has a strong connection with a solid Gretchen Olah as her girlfriend, Alyssa. Their "Dance with You" is exquisite.

At the end of the show--SPOILER ALERT--Emma and Alyssa finally kiss, and I don't think that I can adequately describe the audience reaction. Let's just say that they erupted into an explosion of congratulatory, affirming--and, yes, deafening--cheers and applause.

As Trent Oliver, a performer in a touring company of Godspell who finds a way to connect with the Indiana youth, talented junior Nicholas Poche sometimes speaks too fast and some lines get lost. But he gets better and better, stronger and stronger, as the show goes on, and by the end he rivals the very best in the cast. He's wonderful in the preachy-but-beautiful "Love Thy Neighbors," which solidly if not didactically argues the Bible's teachings right back at the intolerant that use the Good Book as a misguided weapon. (I adore how the Godspell touring company, singing chorus in Trent's big gospel number, use their Godspell scripts as tambourines.) Poche's Trent also gets to dramatically don a scarf better than Norma Desmond flaunts a boa.

An amazing Ellie Meurer gets to strut her best Roxie Hart stuff as Angie Dickinson in the show's first number in Act 2, the Fosse-fantastic "Zazz." Gavin Peterson is stoic as Principal Hawkins, while Nicholas Novak, dance captain Savanna Dureault and Braeden Estep all do fine work.

Special mention must go to standout Luciana DeFelice. Not only is she strong as Shelby and a dancer to be reckoned with, but she cleverly choreographed the show and was its Technical Director. I am awe of this multi-talented soul, and I guess it begs the question: IS THERE ANYTHING MS. DEFELICE CANNOT DO?

As the chief antagonist, Mrs. Greene, the head of the PTA, Callie Huffman bravely inhabits this purposely heinous role, sort of the Snidely Whiplash of homophobes. She gets booed by the audience, but she stands unblinking, her head held high. Ms. Huffman understands that to tell this story in the strongest way possible you can't sugarcoat a villain; you dive headfirst and let the jeers come your way. I was extremely impressed by her performance.

The ensemble is the motor that drives this show, whether they play students, Godspell cast members or snarling protestors. They include: Kallyn Maday, Rita DeFelice, Addison Olson, Jackson Brown, Reagan Ramlackhan, Corday Keith, Tristyn Wamsley, Maxene Davis, Chandler Smith, Olivia Mosback, Kiara Sanchez, Maria Diaz Gotay, Gabby Bull, Isabella Ogborn, Mikyla Rodrigues, Emma Sobel, Nolan Chillinsky, Wyatt Veronee, Lola Coey, Wilson Kilwein, Adie Rumph, Mia Rodriguez, Hannah Jacobson, Ariana Diaz, Bella Olita, Dylan Saleh, Kaitlyn Mummaw, Keira Trombly, and Kiara Sanchez.

The set changes were amazingly fluid, and the pace of the show, with the exception of the early Act 2 lull, was mostly snap-fast. One thing I adore is that the cast always remains in character, even when moving sets in the scene changes.

Mr. Ryan Chillinsky designed the cool, pizazzy (or at times, Indiana drab) set, and his crew includes Ellie Meurer, Gretchen Olah, Delaney George, Olivia Mosback, Kallyn Maday, TRachel Robinson, Wilson Kilwein, Megan Stringer, Aiken Rodriguez, Bella Olita and Nicholas Poche (a.k.a. Trent).

The costumes were out of this world outrageous, especially Barry's garb. The designer was Cadence Zenkel, and the crew included Jackson Brown, Wyatt Veronee, Lola Coey, Chandler Smith, Corday Keith, Solan Chillinsky, Kaitlym Mummaw, Emily Wilson, and Savanna Dureault. Mia Rodriguez and Megan Stringer were also the Hair and Make-Up Designers, backed by their crew of Gracie Klinker and Addison Olson.

Ariana Diaz and Callie Huffman were in charge of props, and Rachel Robinson and Annie Yang were the sound engineers. Mr. Zach Miles lighting design worked well in the Blake theatre, with help from student lighting designer Joslyn David. They were aided by Matt Mills, Gavin Peterson, Braedin Estep and Reanan Ramlackhan. Other help came from Skye Dutkiewicz and Adie Rumph. Whew, that's an impressive number of students involved!

The backstage was led by stage manager Alex Battenfield, with assistant stage managers Sofia Wharton, Olivia Mosback and Alayna Rodriguez.

Harmonies were grand in the group numbers of THE PROM, and much of the singing was off the charts, thanks to music director Mr. John B. Dehaas, with music captains Ellie Meurer, Gretchen Olah, Reanan Ramlackhan and Chandler Smith.

But none of this would be possible without the hard work and vision of director Mrs. Tara Whitman. She has led the kids who form Troupe 1983 into greatness and, even more importantly, goodness. They care so much to tell this story and to tell it right. And their place in history--being the first high school in the country to launch this show--is not lost on them.

I am sure they realize how important their work is...not just to their school, not just to the Thespians who attended their musical, but to the entire state. There's a song in the show called "You Happened"....Well, they happened...and created theatrical magic in a world (and a state) that truly needs it.

Think about it: What a horrifically sad and boring world it is becoming when people attempt to marginalize and even try to quell the gay community, trans teens and adults, and drag queens. Several politicians, backed by the fearful and the ignorant, want to turn back the clock and paint our beloved Sunshine State into a Permanently Gray Cloud State. They want the rain without the rainbow.

That's why it's sad that a high school performance of this cheery musical this year in the "Don't Say Gay" state can be construed as an almost revolutionary act. But what these young people have done is extraordinary. Not only have they made history, but they have changed many lives. I have heard that some audience members, after watching this performance of THE PROM, actually came out to an adult. That's the power of theatre and, specifically, of this show. The West Orange High School cast, crew, director, school and community should be incredibly proud.

But we must never lose hope. If THE PROM teaches us anything, it's that redemption is possible with anyone. If the antagonist of the show can wave a rainbow flag at the end, then there's hope for even the most closed-minded and closed-hearted politician out there. I just wish that they--and we know who they are--had seen this show performed by these awe-inspiring teens. It's impossible to deny its charms and its heartening power...the power to be changed by theatre. As the line from the song "Changing Lives" so accurately states: "Even the people who are dead inside will shout BRAVO!"

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