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 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
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
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Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.