Lively dancing provides pleasure amid cardboard characters, muddled messaging of PTC’s “Prom”

Sat May 13, 2023 at 12:20 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
Celeste Rose and Mia Cherise Hall as Emma and Alyssa in The Prom at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: BW Productions

Pioneer Theatre Company is closing its season with a big, bright dance party. Fittingly enough, the dancing is the best part of The Prom

Director Karen Azenberg’s delightful choreography, combined with an uplifting message and some stellar singing, overcame the musical’s forgettable score and puzzlingly uneven tone to bring the opening-night crowd to its feet.

The story is inspired by real events: In 2010, a Mississippi high school canceled its prom rather than let a lesbian couple attend, then reinstated the event after one of the students sued—only to be undermined by a separate, secret prom organized by parents. Celebrities crowd-funded an inclusive prom in response.

The 2016 musical by Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics), Bob Martin (book), and Matthew Sklar (music) moves the story to Indiana and puts most of the focus on the adult celebrities—four self-important actors in desperate need of a career boost and/or image rehabilitation who hop on a bus to educate the small-town bigots they’ve read about on Twitter. 

The result feels like Footloose, Hairspray, and Glee put into a blender with Sunset Boulevard. It isn’t just that the often-hilarious showbiz satire and earnest teen drama are competing for our attention; the bigger stumbling block is the unfocused tone.

Ridiculing the messenger but not the message is a tricky line to walk, and The Prom doesn’t always do it well. For example, an actor’s exhortation to the mean teens to “Love They Neighbor” is so preachy and goes on for so long that you start to wonder if you’re meant to take its message seriously. Aaron Sorkin did this sort of scriptural takedown so much better on The West Wing.

But never fear; after a dynamite dance break featuring some of Azenberg’s snappiest choreography, the homophobic kids are fully converted. (Believe it or not, this is not the most miraculous volte-face in the show.)

Despite these flaws in the material, The Prom is undeniably fun and is anchored by some excellent performances. 

Photo: BW Productions

Anne Tolpegin, a world-class belter with big Patti LuPone energy, is gloriously over the top as Dee Dee, a two-time Tony winner whose career has gone south. T. Branch Woodman brings equally impressive pipes to the role of her bestie Barry. His is the best-developed character in the show, and Woodman is terrific as he peels away the pompousness to reveal a vulnerable, but still fabulous, human being.

Along for the ride are two showbiz staples, perpetual understudy Angie (Wendy Waring) and Juilliard-trained waiter Trent (Josh Adamson). Waring makes the most of the one chance she’s given to shine; “Zazz” kicks off the second act in style as her sharp Fosse-inspired dance moves make us believe Angie just might have been born to play Roxie Hart. If Adamson’s showcase number, “Love Thy Neighbor,” is less successful, it’s due to the uninspired music and no fault of the actor, who sings and dances with wit and flair.

The ostensible central character is Emma; it’s her prom, after all. But if not for a marvelous performance by Celeste Rose, Emma would have come off as an afterthought. Rose’s touchingly natural acting, beautifully lyrical singing, and superhuman breath control overcome a criminally underwritten part.

Supporting actors Howard Kaye (the harried agent), Mia Cherise Hall (Alyssa, Emma’s closeted girlfriend), Bernard Dotson (the do-gooder principal), and Erin Wilson (the anti-gay crusader) have varying degrees of success in fleshing out their one-dimensional characters. The large ensemble cast never fails to dazzle in the show’s many high-energy dance numbers, and a lively fourteen-piece pit orchestra led by Phil Reno brings the production values up another notch.

The Prom runs through May 27.

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