ABOVE: Cast of HSPVA’s production of “The Prom” (Photo by Lyle Ross)
The Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts ended October with a bang: this year’s All-School Musical is both timely and provocative. The Prom (book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin; music and lyrics by Matthew Skylar and Chad Beguelin, respectively) tells a controversial real-life story with equal parts humor and heart. In the hands of a phenomenal cast, the musical springs to life, highlighting thorny and complicated issues in a way that feels funny and real.
“Loosely based on a true story, The Prom centers around narcissistic Broadway stars who are trying to save their careers by taking it upon themselves to help Emma, a girl from a small-town in Indiana,” writes director Rozie Curtis in the show’s Playbill. In HSPVA’s production, Emma Nolan (played beautifully by Aubrey Scarcella) wants to attend her high school prom — but she wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa (a moving Ogechi Nwachukwu). Having two girls as prom dates unsettles the small Midwestern town. Adding to the issue is the (largely unspoken) fact that Emma is white; Alyssa is black.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Alyssa’s mother, Mrs. Greene (a deeply credible Sydney Gibson) is the head of the PTA. (She doesn’t know yet that her closeted daughter is who Emma wants to go to prom with.) The parent-teacher association objects to Emma’s idea and puts pressure on the principal (played by Jackson Swinton) to act. Principal Hawkins sympathizes with Emma’s plight, but his hands are tied. The prom is canceled.
Into this mess step four Broadway stars. Dee Dee Allen (Gentry Lumpkin) and Barry Glickman (Eliran Masti) are still smarting from the failure of their show Eleanor, which closed on opening night. Stung by a New York Times reviewer who calls them narcissists, they hatch a plan to rehab their images, to start “Changing Lives” (the opening number). In search of good PR, they learn of Emma’s plan and go to Indiana. They’re joined by Juilliard-trained actor Trent Oliver (Stefan Herrera) and chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Amelia DiClaudio). Publicist Sheldon (Comfort Azagidi) also accompanies them.
Meanwhile, Emma’s being bullied by schoolmates who blame her for the prom’s cancellation. She reminds herself to take it easy (“Just Breathe”), adding a poignant reminder: “Note to self: don’t be gay in Indiana.” (Or Texas.) In swoops the cast, ready to protest (in front of the cameras). Dee Dee belts her way through “It’s Not About Me”, a smartly written satire of celebrities who speak out on issues they know little about: “Stealing the rights of a girl who’s part of the…LGBQT?/I’ve been far too angry to Google what those words mean.” Lumpkin is fantastic: not only does she wring every laugh out of the lyric, she proves to be a great belter.
Meanwhile, as the press frenzy builds, Emma reminds us that she doesn’t want to be a symbol or a lightning rod. “I don’t want to start a riot/I don’t want to blaze a trail/I don’t want to be a symbol/Or a cautionary tale,” she sings to Alyssa. “I just wanna dance with you/Let the whole world melt away/And dance with you/Who cares what other people say?” As Emma and Alyssa croon their way through this intimate moment, what emerges is a) the sweet, unforced chemistry of Scarcella and Nwachukwu and b) the reminder that, for all the hoopla around it, this is really just a teenage love story — between two girls.
Meanwhile, Trent tries to appeal to the community. He rounds up the actors to join him in a performance of his badly written plea for tolerance (“The Acceptance Song”). But they all get booed off the stage when they sing at a local monster truck rally. Back at the school, the boys ask the girl of their choice to prom in a winningly wholesome ensemble song (“You Happened”). They appeal to the girls in ways that are dopey yet sweet (as teenage boys can be).
“There’s not one subject that I could pass/Before you walked into my Spanish class,” one boy tells a girl named Shelby. He tells her “Life without you was no bueno. Then something new happened/And turned my life around entirely/And that’s ‘cause YOU happened.” Even sweeter is the moment where Alyssa accepts Emma’s “prom-posal”: Alyssa agrees to be Emma’s date and come out to her mom.
The adults are hitting it off, too. At the local Applebee’s, Dee Dee and Principal Hawkins get to know one another. Turns out that the principal’s a Broadway superfan (and a big fan of Dee Dee’s). He tells her how he (and other “normal” folks) seek theater, not just to escape but to immerse themselves in magical worlds (“We Look to You”).
The big day finally arrives; Emma finds a lovely pink dress (with the help of Barry) and arrives at the prom, only to find just a handful of people there. Turns out the school is holding two proms — Alyssa’s at the real one, at a country club across town. In a tense phone call, they discuss what happened; Emma realizes that she’s been played and thinks that Alyssa was in on it. Alyssa swears she knew nothing about it, but Emma doesn’t believe her. So, they’re stuck — each at two proms, separate but unequal.
Can you believe all this happened just in Act One? In Act II, we’re treated to more musical numbers, and these broad characters start adding more layers of depth. We learn that Barry hasn’t spoken to his family in decades (a chilling parallel to Emma, whose parents threw her out of the house when she came out). We see Dee Dee try and prove herself selfless to Principal Hawkins (who was disgusted when he found out she was initially just after publicity). She lines up a TV talk show appearance for Emma, who’s too nervous to follow through.
Angie tries to help by telling her a story about an audition for Chicago; the lesson is to perform with pizzazz. Feeling nervous? Angie asks. “Give it some ‘zazz.” (DiClaudio is hilarious as Angie in this number. But she’s also totally believable: you couldn’t tell me she wasn’t already a Broadway star.) Trent connects with the “Christian” bullies by reminding them of the Bible rules they’ve broken (“Love Thy Neighbor”). And all four stars pool their resources to give Emma the prom she always wanted.
The show is so much fun it’s easy to forget that it’s based on a true story. (In 2010, a school district in Mississippi canceled its high school prom because student Constance McMillen wanted to take a girl as her date and wear a tuxedo. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on her behalf. But this high school production takes a heavy, serious subject and turns it into a tuneful, heartwarming musical with plenty of laughs. It’s a prom that welcomes (and entertains) everyone.