By Lynn Venhaus
Let’s hear it for love and ‘Zazz’!

An original musical comedy that remains a breath of fresh air, “The Prom” pops with color and pizzazz. Because it is a big-hearted splashy production, the show now on national tour is a perfect tonic in dark times and well-timed during a cold, dreary winter.

The Fox Theatre’s patrons eager to laugh and feel the connection that only live theater can provide may come away singing the catchy lyric “Life’s no dress rehearsal” from the show’s exuberant song, “Tonight Belongs to You,” while humming others from the tuneful and upbeat score by Tony-nominated writing partners Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar.

Beguelin, the lyricist and co-book writer from Centralia, Ill., grew up seeing shows at The Fox. He and Sklar are known for musical adaptations of “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf,” and he provided new lyrics for composer Alan Menken for “Aladdin,” which had a pre-Broadway tryout at The Muny in 2012.

Beguelin co-wrote the book with Bob Martin, whose credits include “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Based on Jack Viertel’s concept from a true story in the Itawamba County School District in Mississippi, where a high school decided to cancel its prom rather than allow a senior student to bring her girlfriend as her date in 2010.

The case, which involved the ACLU and a decision on violating the First Amendment, wound up in court. The girl was allowed to attend the prom, but local parents organized a separate prom for the rest of the students. Celebrities rallied to help sponsor a special prom without a homophobic backlash. Being a self-centered celebrity magnet gets a few dings here, but the goal is all positive.

Through its cheerful humor that’s drawn from both narcissistic Broadway performers who live in a showbiz bubble and the charms and drawbacks of small-town Midwest living, the play promotes tolerance, inclusivity and understanding.

After its premiere at a regional Atlanta theater in 2016, a Broadway run in 2018-2019 received seven Tony nominations, the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and rave reviews.

Privileged to see it on Broadway in May 2019, I was excited for others to discover its charm and celebrate its spirit. But the original planned tour shut down during the pandemic’s first wave.

With great anticipation, it was set to bow Jan. 25 in St. Louis, home to several backers, including one of the three leading producers, Jack Lane, executive director of Stages St. Louis, and multiple co-producers.

Despite its peppy moves and colorful characters, the company couldn’t escape from the 2022 reality of a highly transmissible Omicron variant. During the stop in Baltimore that preceded St. Louis, the Jan. 21-23 shows were cancelled because too many cast members were affected by the coronavirus.

And despite the rocky start Friday after three-day delay, the fact that the cast, crew, and creatives could rally to put on a show at all, given the issues and obstacles to overcome, is a miraculous triumph.

The Fabulous Fox performances are now Jan. 28 through Feb. 6, with an extra performance scheduled then.

Safety protocols have always been a part of the tour, which began in late 2021. And for admission to the Fox Theatre, patrons are required to show a vaccination card in advance, or a negative COVID-19 test.

Because of cast illnesses, five people substituted for eight roles Friday, including the leading role of entitled prima donna Dee Dee Allen, with understudy Ashley Bruce replacing headliner Courtney Balan. Another main stage diva, Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver, was played by Jordan Alexander instead of Bud Weber.

Understudy Thad Turner Wilson replaced Shavey Brown as publicist Sheldon Saperstein and Christopher McCrewell slam-dunked it as Principal Hawkins, filling in for Sinclair Mitchell. Swing Jordan De Leon, a Stages St. Louis veteran, capably took on four roles, including Olivia Keating, Kevin, Motel Clerk and in the ensemble.

Bruce and Alexander eventually found their groove in the clueless Gang of Four, who flamboyantly land in Edgewater, Indiana, aka Podunk USA, to support the scorned Emma, who wanted to bring a single-sex date to the prom at her not-having-it high school.

After a somewhat flat first act, the cast recovered its rhythm and came roaring back in the second, and much stronger, act. The relief shown on the beaming performers’ faces during a rousing “It’s Time to Dance” finale, and the jubilant curtain call afterwards said it all. They did it! And deserve all the high-fives and praise for seizing the moment.

Casey Nicholaw’s crisp direction and snappy choreography keep things tight and bright.

The Prom, Music by Matthew Sklar, Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw cast: Kaden Kearney (Emma), Kalyn West (Alyssa Greene), Courtney Balan (Dee Dee Allen), Patrick Wetzel (Barry Glickman), Emily Borromeo (Angie Dickinson), Bud Weber (Trent Oliver), Sinclair Mitchell (Mr. Hawkins), Ashanti J’Aria (Mrs. Greene) and Shavey Brown (Sheldon Saperstein)

The triple-threat cast is solid, with national tour newbie (and non-binary) Kaden Kearney impressive as Emma, the lesbian student reluctantly at the center of the firestorm. With their strong pipes, they crushes “Just Breathe,” confidently takes on “Dance with You,” and emotionally delivers “You Happened.” Kearney’s most moving song is the acoustic solo, “Unruly Heart,” which they record for social media posting from her bedroom, explaining exactly how Emma feels.

The poised Ashanti J’Aria gives more dimension to PTA President Mrs. Greene instead of being a one-note villain, while Kalyn West, a veteran of the Broadway cast, shines as her daughter. West and Kearney have a nice chemistry that carries over to the musical numbers.

Each of the Broadway stars has an opportunity to shine, with lithe-limbed Emily Borromeo smooth as the game chorus girl Angie Dickinson, standing out in the signature “Zazz” song-and-dance with its iconic Fosse moves.

Patrick Wetzel comically embodies Barry Glickman, the very theatrical sidekick who basks in the spotlight 24/7, and his scenes with Emma take on a heart-tugging poignancy. His sweet “Barry Is Going to Prom” shows another side to the bombastic showman.

Alexander stands out in the vivacious “Love Thy Neighbor,” which points out hypocrisy to the judgy youngsters in a relevant way.

The showy out-of-towners are funny in “It’s Not About Me” and “The Acceptance Song,” as the humor in the lyrics cleverly blends with the story. Through hilarity, the show’s writers get their points across. – without being strident or pretentious.

The fun musical is a tidy two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Once the rights are released to perform, it will translate well to regional and community theaters and schools.

While the musical is livelier and more endearing than the extravagant and glitzy Netflix film, produced and directed by Ryan Murphy (“Glee”), the fact that it reached more people through his involvement is a good thing.

Murphy wanted to support its message through a broader audience and signed on an A-list cast including Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Andrew Rannells, James Corden, Keegan-Michael Key and Ariana Debose. The star-spangled movie musical came out in December 2020.

Like the characters Emma and Alyssa, Murphy, too, grew up in Indiana as a gay male struggling with his identity. Because its uplifting story encourages teenagers to be their authentic selves, the LGBTQ-supportive show has brought people together around the globe.

The stars aren’t that helpful – except they do get people to see Emma for who she is, and that’s a win-win victory. What’s not to love about a teachable moments that result in joy?

It might be time to dance!

For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com. For tickets, visit: MetroTix.com

Matinee performance of “The Prom” in NYC 2019

Here are links to articles about the local connections to “The Prom” and an interview with a cast member.

Article with producer Jack Lanehttps://www.timesnewspapers.com/webster-kirkwoodtimes/its-pure-joy/article_6290955c-7a08-11ec-9236-b37ee0f21626.html

Here is our podcast with Ashanti J’Aria, who plays Mrs Greene in “The Prom”https://soundcloud.com/lynn-zipfel-venhaus/a-conversation-with-ashanti-jaria?si=ef9f75bc20cc4b638b6f411aaed38cea&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

Local Producers Going to the Tonys
https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article230691424.html

Netflix Movie Has Local Ties
https://www.bnd.com/news/local/article247813845.html

By Lynn Venhaus
Adapted from the 2018 splashy big-hearted Broadway musical, “The Prom” pops with color and pizzazz (or, in the show’s parlance, “Zazz.”).

Vain Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are slammed for their flop, “Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.” With their careers suddenly flatlined, their chorus dancer pal Angie (Nicole Kidman) finds a cause they can get behind – in small-town Indiana, high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) wanted to go with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom, so the PTA cancelled it. The insufferable divas race to the rescue in conservative Edgewater, along with Trent (Andrew Rannells) and Angie. Their involvement isn’t that helpful but gets people to see Emma for who she is and that’s OK.

Its potent message on tolerance and inclusivity is still intact, but the framing has lost some of its sincerity as director Ryan Murphy has stretched it into a bigger and flashier cinematic canvas.

The musical is based on concept by Jack Viertel, who had read about a teen lesbian denied attending her prom in Mississippi in 2010, which involved the ACLU and a decision on violating the First Amendment. It also was a magnet for celebrity activism, which gets a lot of dings in “The Prom.”

Murphy, who created and helmed six seasons of “Glee,” has ramped up the glitz and gone over-the-top at every opportunity. He knows his way around a show tune and aims for the heart. However, he pulls focus on his big-name stars so that the same-sex couple gets less attention.

Nevertheless, newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is wonderful as Emma, who grows in confidence. Ariana DeBose, a veteran of “Hamilton” who will star as Anita in the upcoming remake of “West Side Story,” is a sensational talent and plays the closeted cheerleader.

Streep, at age 71, pulls off a self-centered star in the manner of Patti LuPone, and looks like she’s having a blast with Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells. While they are fine, their lesser marquee counterparts were superior in the Broadway roles – Tony-nominated Beth Leavel as Dee Dee and Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry especially. Kidman shows off her abilities in a Fosse number, “Zazz,” only Murphy has chosen not to highlight the iconic total body moves. Hmmm….

Some of the characters are exaggerated in such a way to render them superficial on film while on Broadway they were played by seasoned pros who sustained the campy fun the whole two acts. And maybe it’s because some of the original Broadway cast were Muny veterans, so their familiarity sold the warmth and joy.

I dearly loved the Broadway musical, nominated for seven Tony Awards and winner of the 2019 Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, which was produced by Stages St. Louis’ Jack Lane and other local theater people. Zippy and full of fizzy fun, “The Prom” had us laughing at the big-city elites, inside-showbiz jokes and mocking hicks in the sticks, but not in a mean way.

Only here the small town doesn’t look like a podunk village, but rather a larger city because it has a mall and a motel in the manner of a Hampton Inn.

For the original musical, Chad Beguelin of Centralia, Ill., nominated for six Tonys, wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book with Bob Martin. Matthew Sklar wrote the music. Beguelin and Sklar, who did fun musical adaptations of “The Wedding Singer” and “Elf,” have a flair for writing hummable tunes with clever turns of phrase. “It’s Time to Dance” is a delightful number and “Unruly Heart” has the endearing sweetness for Emma to gain acceptance with a wider audience.

Andrew Rannells gets to shine – and dance through a shopping mall – in “Love Thy Neighbor,” a teachable moment to the town’s judgy teens.

Casey Nicholaw, who directed the stage show, did the choreography, and it’s as peppy and fun for the big movie ensemble as it was for the intimate cast at the Longacre Theatre. St. Louis native Jack Sippel, a Muny and Broadway veteran, was the film assistant choreographer/dance captain.

Costume designer Lou Eyrich never met a sequin he didn’t like and the flamboyant production design by Jamie Walker McCall has combined mid-century modern with bright lights.

The movie is padded, at 2 hours and 10 minutes, which doesn’t help the momentum. However, the exuberance of the work is the takeaway, and fortunately, the show will be on a national tour next year, spreading its cheerful message about acceptance.

It’s at local theatres but debuts on Netflix Dec. 11.  To find out more about how you can support the Actors’ Fund and Broadway Cares, please visit BroadwayCares.org/TheProm.

“The Prom” is a musical comedy that runs 2 hours, 11 minutes. Directed by Ryan Murphy, it stars Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Kevin Chamberlin, Keegan Michael-Key, Sherry Washington and Mary Kay Place. It is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language. On Netflix.