Reviewed by George Basler
The Prom is a musical that strives to be both flamboyantly humorous and emotionally heartfelt. That’s also the case with SRO Productions III’s lively and entertaining production, which opened this past weekend (Jan. 26-28) for a two-weekend run at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City.
The humor is provided by the misadventures of four narcissistic Broadway “stars” who, with press agent in hand, descend on a small Indiana community to support a lesbian teenager who wants to take her girlfriend to the prom. The “heart” is supplied by the teenager who doesn’t want to be a martyr for a cause, just someone who can be her authentic self and share the big night with her girlfriend.
The mixture of satire and sensibility is not easy to pull off, and The Prom succeeds much of the time, although it deflates somewhat in Act II as the writing becomes a bit lax and heavy-handed.
The SRO Production, though, remains engaging throughout, thanks to strong performances by the large cast directed by Scott Fisher. The performers sing well and play their roles with an infectious enthusiasm that makes the show quirky, fun and, in the end, uplifting.
The Prom is based on a real event. In 2010, a Mississippi school board banned a girl from her high school prom because she wanted to wear a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend. Some celebrities, notably Lance Bass and the band Green Day, went on record supporting her, and the incident drew some national attention.
Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin) wrote The Prom’s book, based on an original concept by Jack Viertel. Matthew Sklar (music) and Beguelin (lyrics) wrote the first-rate score that is a combination traditional Broadway-style numbers and wistful pop ballads.
One of The Prom’s strongest elements is that it takes equal opportunity shots at both small-town prejudices and performative wokeness that can be as annoying as a bad toupee. The four fading Broadway stars take on the girl’s cause only as way to boost their sagging careers and arrive in Indiana with a sense of elitism that The Prom’s creators have a great deal of fun spoofing.
The show is filled with inside jokes that will delight aficionados of The Great White Way, but those unfamiliar with Broadway peccadillos will get some chuckles as well.
Amidst all the Broadway glitz, Emma, the girl who just wants to go to her prom, remains the soul of the show. Tess Klenchik brings a real sense of vulnerability and teenage awkwardness to the role. Most importantly her strong, but sweet, singing voice perfectly matches Emma’s character. Her performances of the show’s two main ballads, “Just Breathe” and “Unruly Heart,” give The Prom its emotional backbone as the character blossoms into her “authentic self.”
Brandy Engel convincingly plays the confusion and anxiety of Alyssa, Emma’s secret girlfriend, who is afraid to “come out” until the end of the show. Her duets with Klenchik — one a plaintive ballad, the other a joyful ensemble number — are among the show’s highlights.
Another anchor for The Prom is Joe Hoffman’s performance as Mr. Hawkins, the high school principal who rallies to Emma’s defense. The character defies the tired stereotypes of a principal as either a bumbling buffoon or unlikeable martinet. Hoffman’s winning performance makes the character sympathetic and likeable.
Of course, the showiest parts in the show are the four narcissist Broadway has-beens who take up reluctant residency in the Indiana town. The roles require over-the-top performances, and SRO actors deliver them with panache and humor.
John Penird sashays through the role of Barry Glickman, who describes himself “as gay as a bucket of wings.” Besides this bravado, Penird brings a poignancy to the role (Barry never went to his own senior prom) that makes character deeply human.
As Dee Dee Allen, the narcissistic diva who has never met a mirror she didn’t like, Marjorie Loughran gives an extravagant performance that is just plain fun. And Loughran has the vocal chops to belt out the show’s songs, notably “The Lady’s Improving,” in Act II.
Jean Graham and Mark Durkee also give fine comic performances as the other two members of the clueless quartet. Graham excels in the Fosse send-up, “Jazz,” while Durkee shines in his big number, “Love Thy Neighbor,” done with the high-energy ensemble.
The script is not without its flaws. Act II is a bit uneven and takes on the faint aroma of self-righteous virtue signaling. A main shortcoming is that the prom-canceling PTA president (Jen Perkins), who is also Alyssa’s mother, is presented as a stock, hiss-able villain with no attempt to dig below the surface of her character.
The Prom begs for a final song, or at least a moment, when the mother reaches an understanding with her daughter. But that never happens. In a show that pushes a message of acceptance, this lack of empathy is glaring. But maybe that’s too much to ask of a show that, despite its cutting-edge theme, is basically an old-fashioned, frothy musical comedy.
On that level, the SRO Production’s effort delivers big-time. It’s a solid good time filled with humor, good songs, vigor and sass — a nice mid-winter pickup.
IF YOU GO: SRO Productions III will present The Prom for a final weekend Feb. 2-4, at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46 Willow St., Johnson City. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday’s performance is at 2 p.m. Tickets (fee included) at $28 ($26 for ages 62 and older) can be ordered at www.sroproductionsonline.com. Tickets also will be available at the door, but reservations are suggested as some performances may sell out.