Sometimes a show’s main virtue is knowing itself exactly what it is. Such praise may sound feeble, but not every play has to struggle its way to emotional ups and downs, or turn the tide of national politics, or open your mind wide. Self-awareness, which is really a kind of honesty, can be all too rare on the most well-funded stages of American theater.
So when “The Prom” blinks to its opening number and weaves its way to its opening number at BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theater, you might feel refreshed. The show equals its audience as a mark of respect. It has a moral to its story, but it knows the real point here is to indulge in the worst stereotypes of Broadway actors and let them misbehave.
In the musical, which opened Wednesday, June 22, Dee Dee (Courtney Balan), Barry (Patrick Wetzel), Angie (Emily Borromeo) and Trent (Bud Weber) seek their former stage fame, according to a New York Times review regain a few of them narcissists. Time to find a gated, “high profile, low risk” charitable cause, they say. Bingo: A lesbian Indiana high school student named Emma (Kaden Kearney) who wants to take another girl, Alyssa (Kalyn West), to the prom, only against the wishes of the PTA.
This love-is-love premise positioned the show as a fun prelude to the city’s Pride weekend, and BroadwaySF’s opening night added to the celebrations with an eye-popping lip-synching of the Bay Area’s Lady Camden, runner-up in the 14th season of , on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” (She was introduced by Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who described himself as a “last-minute understudy” for Mayor London Breed, who did it tested positive for the coronavirus.)
Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s book weaves its way through its construction with delightful rapidity, oblivious to the details and knowing that neither are we. Instead, we get a parade of Zinger: the way the quartet remain silent when discussing non-union actors, as if to protect themselves from this professional disgrace; Lines like “We’re going to help this little lesbian, whether she likes it or not”; an overbearing certainty that there isn’t a problem on earth that can’t be solved with a Broadway belt, a few no-frills rhymes and sequins, and a little slapdash choreography.
Converting hearts and minds in the fictional town of Edgewater isn’t that easy, but it’s not that far either. The Prom only assumes a homophobia whose nastiness never threatens physical violence and who’s willing to admit her own hypocrisy the first time it’s pointed out. It’s also homophobia uncomplicated by other prejudices – racism obviously doesn’t exist in this racially diverse city.
This one-variable experiment, cooked in a lab, doesn’t suck, however, until the show seriously tries to combat homophobia by switching the jokes from the Broadway invaders to the townsfolk. Now the fruit hangs too low and the show swings sloppily and sluggishly out of its comfort zone.
If the cast’s vocals all too often undercut, stutter or curdle, the four grown-ups, directed by Casey Nicholaw, nonetheless lead boldly and prance as if every moment of their lives were in the limelight. Munching the landscape is a philosophy of life for her, a modus operandi — what a resting bitch face might be to someone else.
It is in this arena that The Prom achieves some moments of genuine profundity. As Emma hides in her modest bedroom with her Christmas lights and the Lady Bird poster, the performance of four Broadway actors who just want to hang out and solve their problems with her vicariously fulfills the imagination of every misfit teenage boy ever dreamed of that her heroes could magically fly in and save the day—or at least keep her company.
And if the show’s lesbian love story and coming-out narratives feel overcooked, its conclusions pre-empted, another offering moment packs an unexpected emotional punch: when Emma Barry — who’s also gay and didn’t attend his prom decades ago — does it asks to be her date.
In American culture, we don’t have many rituals that tell us that we matter, that we are worth, that we deserve to be loved, and to be a part of our community, especially after the rites of passage of youth. There’s something about being invited to the prom on this show that trumps all the Tony and Drama Desk awards that Dee Dee and Barry lug around lest a moment call for their presentation. It’s not just a cheesy life lesson. It’s an invitation to all of us to find overt and subtle ways to ask one another to prom at every stage of life.
L“The Prom”: Book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Text by Chad Beguelin. Casey Nicholaw is directing. Until Sunday 17 July. Two hours, 40 minutes. $56-$256. Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor St., SF 888-746-1799. https://broadwaysf.com