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BWW Review: THE PROM at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center

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Running through January 16th

BWW Review: THE PROM at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center
Courtney Balan, Patrick Wetzel, Bud Weber and Emily Borromeo in The National Tour of THE PROM. Photo by Deen Van Meer

The Prom, playing at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through January 16th, is a delightful surprise. It's an old school, classic Broadway Musical that tackles a very contemporary subject: namely, how to deal with being a gay high school student in a small Midwestern town. Smart, funny, fast-paced and poignant, it's apparent five minutes into the show why The Prom won the 2019 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical.

The show begins at the Opening Night cast party for a Broadway musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, where aging stars Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) are about to get bad news from their publicist, Sheldon Saperstein ("Broadway's Press Agent with a Plan" played with delightful unctuousness and snark by Shavey Brown). The Times pans the show, takes Dee Dee and Barry to task for being self-absorbed narcissists, and the production closes after one performance, leaving them unemployed, and with few prospects. They are joined in their misery by career understudy Angie (Emily Borromeo), who has just walked away from a long run of Chicago because they wouldn't give her a shot at playing Roxie, and former child star Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), who never misses a chance to remind everyone of his Julliard training, even though he is currently waiting tables because he's "between jobs." Balan and company do a terrific job of keeping these stock theatrical stereotypes from becoming clichéd caricatures.

Newly unemployed, and desperately seeking some positive press exposure and image rehabilitation, the five jaded New Yorkers cast about for a cause célèbre to which they can attach themselves. Fixing Global Warming is a bit too daunting, and they don't have any useful skills to offer Habitat for Humanity, but a quick scan of trending internet topics yields a Twitter post about a gay high school student in Edgewater, Indiana who is being denied the chance to attend her senior prom. They resolve to turn their star power into a crusade for justice ("Changing Lives"), hoping that the attention they can bring - to both the cause and themselves ("It's Not about Me") - will cast them in a new light. What could possibly go wrong?

Emma is a lesbian (and apparently the only gay person in her school), and she simply wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa Greene to the prom. But Alyssa isn't out yet, and no one knows they've been dating on the quiet for a year and a half. And to complicate matters, Mrs. Greene (Alyssa's conservative, controlling single mother, played with ample self righteousness by Ashanti J'Aria) is spearheading the effort to keep Emma from attending the prom. The school's Principal, Mr. Hawkins (Sinclair Mitchell), attempts to thwart Mrs. Greene's efforts by referring the matter to the Indiana State's Attorney, calling it a civil rights issue.

BWW Review: THE PROM at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center
Kaden Kearney (they-them) and Kalyn West in The National Tour of THE PROM. Photo by Deen Van Meer

Kaden Kearney's Emma is a perfect balance of emotional range. By turns shy and introspective, Emma grows into a powerful voice for tolerance and acceptance when she is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. Kearney blends moments of awkwardness and loneliness (like when she sings "Just Breathe") with an arc of awakening that is spot-on, and never misses a beat. Kalyn West is a perfect counterbalance as Alyssa, the closeted lesbian who loves Emma, but can't muster the courage to break free from the All-American cheerleader facade she maintains both at school, and around her mother. "Dance With You," a poignant and touching duet between Kearney and West, is the most moving number in the first act, and a gentle introduction to the love they share. It's a powerful reminder that love is love, wherever it blooms.

Dee Dee and company arrive in Edgewater just in time to make a mess of things, and along the way we learn that "straight men like musicals, too" - Mr. Hawkins has seen every show Dee Dee has ever done, and an unlikely romance begins to blossom between them ("We Look to You"). Things seem to be moving toward a typical Broadway musical happy ending, until the end of the first act throws a surprise plot twist at Emma, Alyssa, and her newly acquired advocates from New York City. (No spoilers here, though.)

The second act is all about growth and change. Faced with having to take her story to a nationwide TV audience, Emma is coached by Angie on how to present herself in true Fosse fashion ("Zazz" that showcases Borromeo's strong, versatile voice and cat-like grace). Watching her teach the repressed Emma how to move like Roxie is by turns funny and uplifting, as the butterfly Emma begins to emerge from her cocoon and come into her own. Meanwhile, Dee Dee and Trent are also learning that it really isn't about them, and they find that doing good truly is its own reward. (In Dee Dee's case, it's a lesson that costs her a beach house in the Hamptons and a substantial charge on her black Amex card.) Alyssa, after leaving Emma alone on prom night, is forced to examine the lie she has been living ("Alyssa Greene"), in a moment that will resonate with anyone who has ever been in that position. Then Wetzel takes his turn in the spotlight, with the hilarious "Barry is Going to Prom" - a moment he's been waiting more than 20 years to celebrate.

Every classic Broadway musical needs a happy ending, and The Prom achieves that when Emma decides to forego appearing on a national talk show in favor of posting a simple, profound and heartfelt video on YouTube ("Unruly Heart"). The video gets million of views, brings the requisite pressure to bear on the story's antagonists, and the chastened Broadway stars dig deep into their own pockets to throw a prom for Emma, Alyssa, and their newly enlightened classmates, along with scores of kids that are coming from all over the state ("It's Time to Dance").

The Prom succeeds because it finds the right balance in every area. It would be easy for a coming-out-and-coming-of-age story to get preachy, or militant, or maudlin and depressing, but the show is a wonderful blend of comedy and genuine, authentic storytelling that avoids cookie cutter characters and situations. The book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the lyrics) and Matthew Sklar's music move things along at a brisk pace. And while they can't resist looking down their noses at Middle America, they also take plenty of pokes at Broadway, New York City, and a few celebrities, too. It guarantees that the show will play well wherever it goes, because we all like to think we're in on the joke. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps the action moving and his dance numbers are an excellent compliment to a cast that delivers all of the songs flawlessly. The Prom is the kind of musical that will leave you smiling - and talking about the themes of the story - as you leave the theatre. (Note: some subject matter and language used may make this unsuitable for smaller children - it's a PG-rated show.)

The Prom is a classic musical in the grand tradition of Broadway, and it's also new and fresh. It's must see theatre, and an entertaining distraction from pandemics and politics.

Running time is approximately two hours, with one fifteen minute intermission.

The Prom runs through January 16th at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. For more information on the Kennedy Center, click here.


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