How funny is “The Prom?” So funny even the lighting gets laughs.
The jokiest musical since “The Book of Mormon,” with which it shares director / choreographer Casey Nicholaw, “The Prom” is 2 1/2 hours of fun, punctuated by bouncy songs and a message that’s a few years past its sell-by date but still works. And if you did not like Netflix’s version, do not fret. It works way better on stage.
If you can look past chintzy sets (there’s a concrete block wall that appears to be held together by safety pins), the touring “Prom” may even exceed the Broadway original. It has a better lead in Kaden Kearney as Emma, an Indiana student whose prom is canceled to prevent her from bringing a female date. To her rescue comes a band of Broadway almost-beens who, possessing more sequins than common sense, vow to “change the world, one lesbian at a time,” forcing Indiana to host an inclusive prom.
It’s a show about show folks, which is why it makes more sense on stage. It’s also a tricky balancing act, with half being about Emma and her bigoted classmates / townspeople and half about the narcissistic actors. The piece establishes its halves cleverly – with, for instance, the Broadway people doing pizazzy showstoppers but Emma mostly singing power ballads. Having the showbiz “nobodies” played by superstars like Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman threw off the balance on Netflix, on top of the feeling mean for superstars to make fun of less-successful peers.
You’ll enter this “Prom” knowing the names of nobody in the cast but you may leave loving them. Kearney is, like Brandi Carlile, a tiny person with a ginormous voice, as well as a winning actor who makes us care for earnest, kind Emma. Courtney Balan is a hoot as Dee Dee, who thinks she’s Patti LuPone but is really Patti UnKnown. And Patrick Wetzel nails vain actor Barry, a tricky-to-pull-off role (watch James Corden not do it in the film), revealing the nobility inside a particular sort of gay man who has a closet full of bugle-beaded evening gowns at home, in case of drag emergency.
The stories unite in the sweet bond between Emma and Barry, opposites but also kindred spirits. Their scenes are given room to breathe in this production, which fuels its symbiotic message: that the small-town folks learn tolerance from the actors while the latter learn how to be human beings.
As we left “The Prom,” a friend and I debated why this hilarious and tuneful show isn’t bigger. Maybe its dueling stories are difficult to market? Maybe it depends too much on us being so showbiz-mad that we instantly recognize a Tony Award prop and already know what a joke it is that Broadway’s “Chicago” will cast any marketable actor who can draw breath?
“The Prom” is absolutely a musical of, by and for people who love musicals. And you’re reading this, so that’s probably you, right?
Who: By Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar. Directed by Casey Nicholaw.
When: 7:30 Thu., 8 pm Fri., 2 and 8 pm Sat., 1 and 6:30 pm Sun.
Where: Orpheum Theater, 910 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Protocol: Masks and COVID vaccine (or negative test within 72 hours) required.
Tickets: $ 40- $ 105, 800-982-2787 or hennepintheatretrust.org.