The Prom (Photos by Greg Mooney)

By Manning Harris

The Alliance Theatre is once again launching a show toward Broadway. At least that is the goal with its world premiere of “The Prom,” a musical packed with creators and actors who are Tony winners and nominees. The show is running through Sept. 25.

The town of Heaven, Indiana, is canceling its high school prom because a girl named Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) wants to take her girlfriend as her date. Emma is an out and proud—and very courageous—lesbian; but her girlfriend Alyssa (Anna Grace Barlow) is the closeted daughter of the staunchly conservative Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins, an Atlantan who gives a very fine performance), an Anita Bryant wannabe. She easily overpowers Mr. Hawkins (Martin Moran), the decent principal, as well as the school board, and presto—no prom.

Time for a jangling flashback: “The Prom” actually opens backstage at a Broadway theatre, where three wacky performers have just opened in a flop play and are licking their wounds. They are Dee Dee Allen (Tony winner Beth Leavel), Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas), and Angie (Angie Schworer). They’re looking for some way to soothe their wounded egos, when lo and behold, someone reads about Emma’s prom, which has made the national press and social media.

So wouldn’t it be fun and heroic to swoop down on this nowhere town and lend their (fading) Broadway star power and rescue this little girl from her heartbreak? Naturally the New York actors are liberal (Barry takes his gayness to a whole new level); and they’re dying to do good and bolster their tarnished reputations in the process.

Does all this sound just slightly preposterous? Well, it sort of is. If one of the performers were related to Emma (I’m doing a little tweaking to save the play doctors the trouble), it would be a bit more believable. As it is, the combination of the actors and the high school kids is really stretching the “willing suspension of disbelief.”

In fact, we sort of have “I Love Lucy” meets Act Up (an AIDS activist organization formed in the 80’s). It’s easy to make fun of teenage angst, but the fact is that the highest suicide rate is among teenagers. They take their proms and other crises very seriously and lack the perspective that the wisdom of years often bestows. So “The Prom” is inadvertently walking a slippery tightrope.

However, the theatre can work miracles. If this show makes it to Broadway, it will be because of its big heart and its great dancing and catchy music and lyrics. The audience I viewed the show with loved it—especially its super-splashy, feelgood, Hollywood ending. Guess what—I loved it myself, despite my reservations about the creaky plot. In these days of hyper-negativity and political strife, we need some fun—and “The Prom” gives it to us in spades.

With a book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw (under whose direction last year’s “Tuck Everlasting” made it to Broadway), this show has a team of big-time professionals guiding it.

The acting is sparkling and witty, especially Ms. Leavel, whose Dee Dee is so goofy she plops her two Tony Awards on the motel check-in desk and asks for the “penthouse suite”; she actually thinks her awards and New York creds are going to magically transform this Indiana motel into in the Waldorf; she is hilarious. Mr. Ashmanskas and Ms. Schworer and also Josh Lamon (a stitch) and Christopher Sieber all rev up the laugh quotient significantly; by the way, all these people can sing—very well indeed.

It’s the kids (Ms. Kinnunen and Ms. Barlow) who bring a calmness and humanity to the proceedings and make us—as well as their new-found Broadway benefactors—care about them and see the injustice that’s being perpetrated here. Happily, “The Prom” never gets stridently political; it wisely reveals the zaniness of folks on both sides of the aisle (“Lord, what fools these mortals be), so the audience doesn’t have to “take sides” in any serious way.

As I mentioned, there is some really snazzy dancing and good songs that propel the show along. Some songs: “Ordinary Lives,” “Just Breathe,” “You Happened,” “Tonight Belongs to You,” “Zazz” (a funny number in which the long-legged Angie tries to teach Emma some fancy steps), “Love Thy Neighbor,” “The Prom,” “It’s Time to Dance,” and others.

The good heart that I mentioned is ultimately going to win you over. The show is fun right now; some more tweaking (this happens with any show) and Broadway may beckon. In the meantime, thanks to Artistic Director Susan Booth and this fine company, Atlanta can once again say, “We saw it first!”

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.