Review: ‘Prom’ season is over the top at the Ahmanson Theatre

It’s apparently prom season at the LA Music Center. People stroll to the Ahmanson Theater in their silkiest clothes, some have hung banners proclaiming themselves king or queen of the night.

This cosplay commemorates the LA premiere of The Prom, the 2018 Broadway musical that made the 2020 film starring Meryl Streep and James Corden. The show feels like it’s been around forever, but that’s probably because the film is still streaming on Netflix.

Wednesday’s premiere audience for the nationwide tour production appeared to have its fair share of returning viewers. The Prom didn’t develop a full-blown cult like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But it has a loyal following who appreciate the musical’s positive LGBTQ+ message.

When I first saw the show in New York, I burst out laughing for the first 30 minutes. The structure of the musical is the camp sky. Two Broadway egomaniacs, Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, are awaiting reviews for their new musical, Eleanor! – The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical.”

All seems fine as champagne is poured and congratulations for a rave are offered from a New Jersey newspaper. But then the New York Times buries Dee Dee and Barry alive. Other reviews leave little doubt that the opening night will also be the closing night.

“What didn’t you like?” Barry wonders cluelessly. “Was it the hip-hop?” Sheldon, the show’s publicist, explains that it’s not the show; it’s the stars. “You’re not nice. Narcissists,” he explains as if he were speaking to two aging toddlers, are not usually fan favorites.

The party quickly turns into a funeral. Two unemployed actors, Trent Oliver, who keeps reminding everyone he’s a Juilliard graduate, and Angie, a leggy chorus girl who just quit her job on “Chicago” after 20 years of not being asked Roxy to play, express their sympathy. Together, this foursome hatches a rescue plan to transform Dee Dee and Barry from selfish alumni into prominent activists.

An article on Twitter about a young lesbian named Emma in Edgewater, Indiana, whose high school prom was canceled to prevent her from attending with her friend gives them a surefire bet on social media. The group boards a bus bound for the Midwest with a non-equity cast of “Godspell.” Dee Dee threatens to kindle “Holy Hell”. Barry, who gets Sheldon to come along to get enough publicity, swears, “We’re going to help this little lesbian, whether she likes it or not.”

From Bob Martin (a co-creator of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin (whose Tony-nominated credits include “Aladdin” and “The Wedding Singer”), the book reaches a dangerous, over-the-top height. On Broadway, the show found the perfect leads in Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas to bring the Broadway excesses of Dee Dee and Barry to non-hackneyed life. There was a keen satire in her portrayal of the hypocritical diva antics of the “Broadway Liberal Democrats.” They did play dudes, but with the granularity of backstage insight and prickly professional experience.

Two people hold hands on stage.

Kaden Kearney, left, and Kalyn West on The Prom’s national tour.

(Deen van Meer)

The film lacked the same theatrical credibility. Streep and Corden reveled in Broadway clichés, sometimes delicious, at times inflammatory, but rarely, if ever, with genuine originality. The film failed to replicate the dizzying start of the original Broadway company. But the film was perhaps more effective in dealing with the sentimental twist in the story. The plight of a lesbian teenage girl, estranged from her parents and estranged from her school, registers emotionally in the sympathy of the star cast.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the Ahmanson’s production goes big and wide. Opportunities for subtlety, though few and far between, are mowed down with theatrical flourish. The show’s marketing emphasizes the “live” aspect of this encounter with “The Prom” – and liveliness seems to be the company’s main goal.

Acting, design and choreography all work together to keep us entertained, but the overall result is mixed. This is a two-act musical that could afford to lose at least 20 minutes of padding. Neither my companion nor I were surprised when the audience thinned out around us after the break.

The book being devoured is not the only problem. The score by Matthew Sklar (music) and Beguelin (lyrics) drops numbers that lose momentum, especially in the second act. Sklar and Beguelin are generous to the main characters, letting them sing about private worries while the plot taps their watch impatiently.

Courtney Balan plays Dee Dee in a tinny comic mode that’s at times reminiscent of Saturday Night Live alumnus Cheri Oteri. Such an over-the-top approach might be more suited to skits, but Balan compensates with tireless musical showmanship. Patrick Wetzel’s Barry shies away from goofy, stereotypical extravagance, which is no easy feat when you’re playing a character who describes himself as “gay as a bucket of wigs.”

Bud Weber’s Trent and Emily Borromeo’s Angie seem content to appear as Broadway cartoons. Shavey Brown delivers Sheldon’s PR taunt with enough clout. As Mr. Hawkins, the empathetic and morally upright principal at Emma’s school (who turns out to be a hardcore Dee Dees fan), Sinclair conveys a real sweetness to Mitchell. Ashanti J’Aria plays Mrs. Greene, the PTA villain, as a mother on a misguided mission to protect her daughter.

This incarnation of “The Prom” is best remembered for UC Irvine MFA actress Kaden Kearney’s wonderfully balanced performance as Emma. Due to her character’s painful reality and the comedy exploding around her, she is remarkably tender in her scenes with Kalyn West, who reprises her confident and heartfelt Broadway performance as Alyssa, Emma’s not-yet-out friend.

Kearney soars most spectacularly in musical flight. Whether she’s letting loose with the cast in exuberant ensemble numbers or confiding in her truth to her laptop in Unruly Heart, her virtuosity cements audiences’ love and concern for her character.

The joys of The Prom have faded for me over time. But the musical’s compassionate message keeps eliciting a series of heart emojis from my keyboard.

‘The Prom’

Where: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA
When: 8 p.m Tuesday to Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Sunday. Ends September 11th. (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $40-$145 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or
Duration:2 hours, 30 minutes, with a break
COVID protocol: Masks are required at all times. (Check website for changes.) Review: ‘Prom’ season is over the top at the Ahmanson Theatre

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