Alliance Theatre opens its 2016-2017 season with a world premiere of "The Prom," a splashy, feel-good musical that explores what happens when well-meaning allies, on behalf of a teenage girl, fight intolerance regarding sexual orientation and how that conversation affects those involved.
When James Madison High School opts to cancel the prom after Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) expresses her intentions to bring her girlfriend Alyssa (Anna Grace Barlow), a group of seasoned Broadway actors try to co-opt her story but end up bettering themselves in the process.
Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas), former superstars, team up with overworked ensemble players Trent (Christopher Sieber) and Angie (Angie Schworer) to seize what they believe is a mutually beneficial opportunity. In standing up for Emma's right to enjoy a night of dancing like any other teenager, they hope to experience a boost in their careers.
The show spends as much time on the four actors' development as they do on issues within Emma and Alyssa's relationship. In fact, the two become intertwined, as things get worse before they get better. While certainly funny, the Broadway troupe's well-intentioned bumbling and subsequent growth seem to take up more space than expected within a narrative ostensibly about teen lesbians in love.
The eagerness of "The Prom" to entertain seems to happen at the expense of opportunities to focus on queer characters and their development. The immediate focus on Dee Dee, Barry, Trent, and Angie with their high-energy opening number seems a little jarring, especially after a break-neck introduction to Emma. Later on, subplots about Dee Dee's love life and attempts at self-improvement seem to upstage issues between Emma and Alyssa.
Though closeted about their relationship, Emma and Alyssa are more or less established with each other. Being forced to deal with the school's prejudiced decision is what drives conflict in their relationship. Thus, the story doesn't seem so much about them, or as the queer love story it might be billed as, but more about how they react to the actions of those around them. Emma and Alyssa just want to be treated like anyone else.
Not that the ensuing antics aren't entertaining, of course. "The Acceptance Song," penned by Trent for the purpose of drumming up support for Emma's cause, is just such a moment. Performing in the number are "Godspell" cast members in requisite over-the-top flower child costumery, with the addition of shirts bearing "We're All Lesbians." Adding to the comical insensitivity, a "Black Sheep" character prances about while the main actors urge that we're all the same "on the inside" to a crowd attending a monster truck rally.
Indeed, many delightful moments in the show are its homages to Broadway standards like "Godspell," "Chicago," and "Evita." References and jokes run gleefully rampant throughout the music, lyrics, and choreography. One standout example is "Zazz," near the beginning of Act 2. Angie gives Emma a pep talk inspired by Bob Fosse himself, all while wearing -- what else -- a lacy black negligee.
Broadway musicals tend to have that sense of self-awareness, but "The Prom" takes it over the top in a fun way. The dialogue is playfully meta-theatrical as the Broadway veterans bemoan the realities of their careers. Musical numbers like "Ordinary Lives" and "It's Not About Me" have a robust amount of farce and hyperbole to get us laughing at ourselves until a number like "Look to the Stars" sneaks up on us. In it, Principal Hawkins (Martin Moran) espouses the value of musical theater not just as a means of escape, but also as a tool to help us envision ways the world could be.
Overall, "The Prom" emerges as a very fun production that engages with topics surrounding queerness, but the young lesbian love narrative doesn't feel sufficiently centered enough to call it a story about that. Rather, with more character development from the Broadway actors and the young people of Heaven, Indiana, it reads like a musical about changing hearts and minds. It shows us how building empathy for experiences outside of one's own can be a useful vehicle for personal growth.
The energy invested in making "The Prom" into a Broadway-inspired musical is certainly not wasted. It's felt in the diverse and energetic cast, featuring with Tony Award winner Beth Leavel. The whole ensemble works hard to set the tone, give a sense of place and perform beautifully full dance numbers. The score, richly layered with musical theater references, is presented with skill and spirit.
This production could not have premiered at a better time politically: post-marriage equality, legal precedents of sexual orientation as a protected class, state-level religious freedom bills, and an election year to boot. "The Prom" comes to us with an unbeatable sense of timing and an infectious enthusiasm that could quickly make its way into theaters nationwide.
"The Prom" runs through Sept. 25 at the Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta. For tickets or information, call 404-733-5000 or visit alliancetheatre.org.