Anna Pontin could well become a star. Let’s establish that right off the top. The second thing to say is that, if I were rating this piece on a teardrop scale, it would score a solid five. This production of The Prom ain’t perfect, but it is undeniably moving.
The Prom tells the story of four out-of-luck Broadway performers. The biggest stars, Dee Dee and Barry, are accused — in print — of being narcissists, which they are, so they all decide to make themselves look good by lending their “celebrity” endorsements to a worthy cause. Scrolling through Twitter for “some small injustice we can drive to”, they find Emma Nolan, a high-schooler from Edgewater, Indiana, who has been refused access to her prom because she wants to bring her girlfriend as her date.
Slyly, The Prom takes the piss out of its own good intentions, so it rarely comes across as condescending: arriving in Edgewater waving placards, the four do-gooders declare, “We are liberal Democrats from Broadway!”, as if the Hoosiers will be instantly awestruck into submission.
Let’s talk about Pontin. I have no idea what her range is as a performer but, as Emma, she’s pretty much perfect, possessed of a dynamite combo: a sweet, sure voice; spot-on comic timing; and an understated authenticity that makes the whole story matter. Brianna Clark is also persuasive as Emma’s girlfriend Alyssa. And, from the get-go, Amy Gartner makes Alyssa’s mom, Mrs. Greene, who is the villain of the piece, one of the most intriguing figures on the stage. Mrs. Greene is Edgewater’s chief homophobe: she suspects but refuses to acknowledge that her daughter is gay. The wisdom of Gartner’s performance is that she never lets us entirely forget the pain that’s lurking beneath Mrs. Greene’s fury.
And Kevin Khonje makes a charming stage debut as the supportive high-school principal Tom Hawkins. Khonje acts and sings with equal ease, which makes “We Look to You”, the adoring song Tom delivers to Dee Dee, one of the highlights of Act 1.
I enjoyed these understated performances. That might help to contextualize my sense that playing the flamboyantly queeny Barry is a tricky assignment. A lot of the laughs that Barry delivers are born of excess, but the character also needs to be credible enough for his more emotional material to land. My take is that, if Greg Armstrong-Morris, who’s playing Barry here, were to dial the size of his work back just a titch, his characterization would be more moving. Catriona Murphy is in fine voice as Dee Dee.
And, playing one of the other do-gooders, a pompous young actor named Trent, Matthew Valinho comes into his own in his Act 2 number “Love Thy Neighbour”, in which he finally gets to show off his vocal and comic chops.
But here’s the thing: the musical presents problems that this production doesn’t always overcome.
With one notable exception, which I’ll get to, Matthew Sklar’s score is forgettable. And many of the songs are narratively and emotionally unnecessary, which means that, to really sell them, you’d have to produce the shit out of them, which this Theatre Under the Stars mounting doesn’t have the resources to do.
I was underwhelmed by director Tracey Power’s choreography; there’s a lot of arm waving. And Stephanie Kong’s costume designs are iffy. In some scenes, the looks are naturalistic but, for a couple of the big numbers, they get narrowly schematic: wall-to-wall sequins for the final big dance, for instance.
But let’s get back to that five-teardrop rating. As I think everybody knows by now, right-wing extremists across the globe are viciously targeting queer youth. While demonizing and damaging kids, they are claiming, like Mrs. Greene, that it’s their rights that are under attack.
Let me set the scene. Having been brutally humiliated at the end of Act 1, Emma makes a video of her song, “Unruly Heart”, which is by far the best number in the show, and she releases the video on the internet near the end of Act 2. She sings, “I had to conceal this poor, unruly heart of mine” and we start to hear the comments that are being left by other queer kids: “Hi, Emma.
Loved your video. Where do I start?”
Those are my kids. They’re our kids. I was a mess. So was the woman sitting next to me. And that’s a good thing.
THE PROM Music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. Directed by Tracey Power. On Thursday, July 13. A Theatre Under the Stars production. Running in rep at Malkin Bowl until August 25. Tickets and info
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