‘The Prom’: Old-school vibe, new-school themes

From the left: Lisa Yuen, Mary Callanan, John Kuntz and Jared Troilo in SpeakEasy Stage’s “The Prom.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – Broadway is never better than when it skewers itself.

And, in that vein, that goes double for a musical comedy that allows certain actors to do what they do best: Go delightfully over the top in bids for the biggest laughs.

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the Tony-winning “The Prom” at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts is an orgy of scene-stealing by actors who have spent many years perfecting the art.

It is not only a showcase for the actors, but a chance to see what top-notch choreography looks like in the hands of a young, talented cast and an emerging choreographer in Taavon Gamble. And, of course, it makes a statement along the way about the human condition, and the need for tolerance, acceptance, and the ability to listen to each other.

Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Mary Callanan) and her flamboyant co-star Barry Glickman (John Kuntz) are down and out after a poisonous review in the New York Times sinks their bio-musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt after only one show. Was it the hip-hop number, they wonder?

They are befuddled. How can the public just give up on two first-class narcissists who give narcissism a bad name?

Dee Dee and Barry both know a career correction is needed, but how can they “appear to be decent human beings” in seeking to re-invent themselves?

Their friends don’t seem to have the answer. Angie Dickinson (Lisa Yuen) is a career chorus girl – 20 years in “Chicago” — who was recently beaten out for the role of Roxy Hart in the show by Tina Louise, who may or may not be alive.

Abriel Coleman and Liese Kelly in “The Prom.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Trent Oliver (Jared Troilo) is an actor/waiter who is full of himself and sometimes just full of it and, don’t cha know, attended Julliard! Everywhere he goes, he is reminded of his ‘90s sitcom “Talk to the Hand.”

How can they remain relevant? Eureka! They need a cause that would allow the celebrities to rescue the common folk who are going through tough times.

They find one sure enough, through a quick search of Twitter. Dee Dee and Barry zero in on the perfect foil: A 17-year-old lesbian named Emma Nolan (Liesie Kelly), whose Indiana high school won’t let her bring a girl to the prom.

Homophobia in The Heartland!

Theater producer Jack Viertel is credited with coming up with the idea, after researching several similar cases, including one in Mississippi in 2010.

The actors drag along publicist Sheldon Soperstein (Meagan Lewis Michelson), hitching a ride to Indiana with a bus and truck tour of “Godspell.”

Emma, meanwhile, is a simple soul and uncomfortable about becoming the object of everyone’s attention, especially when her partner Alyssa Greene (Abriel Coleman) has yet to come out and is the daughter of Mrs. Greene (Amy Barker), the PTA member who is at the heart of the effort to keep Emma away from the prom at all costs. The other students also find a myriad of ways to harass her.

In this case, Broadway meeting Middle America provides the barrel of laughs you were looking for, but book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, along with the score with lyrics by Beguelin and music by Matthew Sklar, have made it a point to soften the edges around characters such as Mrs. Greene. They also make Mr. Hawkins (Anthony Pires Jr.), the high school principal and a fan of Dee Dee’s (who also happens to be straight) a real person as he escorts her to “Apples and Bees,” considered fine dining in the town.  

The score includes hilarious numbers such as “Changing Lives” and “It’s Not About Me” along with lovely ballads such as “Just Breathe” and “Dance with You” that put Emma and Alyssa in the spotlight.

The celebs wonder how best to get the message out about Emma’s dilemma while making sure they all look good doing it. They decide Dee Dee must get down on bended knee and beg her ex-husband – at the cost of a house in the Hamptons — to put Emma on his national talk show.

Dee Dee is a giving soul, but only to a point. When Emma decides to go in a different direction, Dee Dee attacks hilariously: “You owe me a (expletive) house.”

Troilo and the cast of “Godspell” cast take their lives into their hands when they become the intermission entertainment at a monster truck jam and bring their message of love, acceptance and Pride flags to fans who want nothing to do with it.

As events unfold, the celebs bond with Emma, and Kuntz as Barry becomes Emma’s advocate. close friend, and fashion adviser, musing how alone he also felt in high school and sharing a secret that bonds them together. It culminates in the joyful “Barry is Going to Prom.”

 Act II does tend to wander around a bit before sticking the landing, but when it does lag, Gamble’s chorography unleashes another terrific production number.

Hearts and minds are changed, to be sure, as Emma, Alyssa and the celebrities emerge triumphant in the end. if only it were as easy in real life.

SpeakEasy Artistic Director Paul Daigneault has slipped into a comfortable easy chair in directing this show, stocked with some old friends and familiar faces, and then harnesses the talents of his younger cast members to streak across the finish line.

Spring tends to bring with it lighter, brighter fare in local theaters, and indeed tis the season for school proms.

 “The Prom” is a delight, an old-school musical comedy with new-school vibes and themes, turbo-charged choreography, and a cast not afraid, thankfully, of going over the top in search of laughs.

The SpeakEasy Stage Production of “The Prom.” Directed by Paul Daigneault. Choreographed by Taavon Gamble. Music Direction by Paul S. Katz. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume design Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting design by Karen Perlow. Sound design by Andrew Duncan Will. In the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through June 10. SpeakEasyStage.com.

The Company shakes it up with a happy dance in “The Prom.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios