SALT LAKE CITY — While it can be valuable and important to see a challenging and gritty play or musical there is also a place for light bubbly crowd pleasing shows. Such is the case with the new musical at Pioneer Theatre Company, The Prom. Based on true events this sweet and frothy show is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face and particularly teens will find it inspiring and fun.
The Prom debuted on Broadway in 2018 with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin. Sklar and Beguelin had previously worked together on The Wedding Singer and Elf: The Musical but The Prom is their first original project. It is based on the 2010 Itawamba County School District Prom Controversy where a young woman named Constance McMillen in Mississippi was not allowed to take her girlfriend to prom. Eventually celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes and Lance Bass became involved and put on a special prom for McMillen and her friends. The translation of these real-life events makes for a cute story but that said- the book is not the strongest. I’m not sure why they decided to move the events from Mississippi to Indiana. Being in Bible Belt Mississippi makes way more sense for the story (being a former Hoosier I resent the Indiana-hate this show delivers!) Also the decision to focus the narrative on 5 Broadway ‘celebrities’ instead of on the young woman, Emma, is strange and confusing.
The dialogue and comedy in The Prom is also on the broad side with lines like “Bob’s Big Boy? This town has a gay bar?” or “I understand furious townsfolk, I did Beauty and the Beast.” I chuckled enough to have a fun time but your mileage with the jokes may vary. It’s just strange with such a compelling character as Emma that we spend so much time on these B-level Broadway performers. Are Broadway singers really that famous outside of the Broadway bubble? The most famous are probably people like Idina Menzel and she’s more well known for her animated vocal performances than Broadway. I highly doubt most average people in Indiana would know who these people are or care. Why not just tell Emma’s story on its own without the celebrity framing device? Even in the songs the Emma vs the celebrities sometimes feel like they are in different musicals. For example, the grounded “Just Breath” vs silly “It’s Not About Me” are so different in terms of style, timbre, and comedy.
Book problems aside, director Karen Azenberg at Pioneer Theatre works with what they’ve got to make for a pleasing night of theatre with a big heart to all the proceedings. I can picture lots of high schools doing The Prom and having a blast with its positive message and bubbly songs. Scenic designer Jo Winniarski also successfully recreates the feeling of a high school hallway with lockers and 3 proms, with the final one being especially dazzling with multiple disco ball lights to show this prom is the true inclusive prom. (lighting design by David Neville.) They also make a believable Applebees set (or the “Apple and Bees place” as Dee Dee calls it.), which is amusing.
I enjoyed the dancing throughout the show with choreography by Azenberg. We even get some complicated lifts done by the teens in the prom sequences. Patrick Holt also does commendable work with the costumes. I like how the dresses all feel like believable high school prom dresses. For the celebrities, Angie got my favorite looks with a short pink sparkly dress with long sleeves to start out the show, and then a unique rainbow dress later on when they do the halftime performance at the Monster Truck Rally with the non-equity touring cast of Godspell.
The cast is uniformly strong in The Prom at Pioneer Theatre with highlights being Julliard trained Trent played by Josh Adamson, and Anne Tolpegin as the pompous Dee Dee. Branch Woodman is also very sweet as the insecure Barry who finally gets his chance to go to prom. Celeste Rose is lovely as Emma, but like I said, it sometimes feels like she is in a different show with her more grounded songs and performance compared to the celebrities.
As far as songs go, the highlight is “Love Thy Neighbor” sung by Trent to the teens. The song provides a frank discussion of what The Bible actually says about homosexuality, and how Jesus wants the teens to treat Emma and her girlfriend with kindness. It’s a song that says a lot without feeling preachy or annoying. And again Adamson shines as Trent being both funny and vulnerable.
If audiences are on the lookout for a musical that’s positive and energetic with a great message than The Prom at Pioneer Theatre is the ideal show. It’s a big-time crowd pleaser that the whole family can enjoy and leave having great conversations about how each of us can be kinder and more accepting. The book and its framing device with the celebrities may be imperfect, but it will still leave you smiling exiting the theatre, flaws and all.