Prom night in Indiana. Not the usual suspect when it comes to creating an uber-gay musical. The Prom was robbed at the 2019 Tony Awards: despite numerous nominations, it walked away empty-handed. The insult was so surprising, headlines the next day did not say what show won as Best Musical (Hadestown), but the fact The Prom lost. (It did win the Drama Desk award for Outstanding Musical).

This musical debuted in 2016. After 310 regular performances on Broadway, it closed in August 2019 without recouping its investment. A salutary tale to all would-be playwrights and producers!

I attended on Pride Night at the Zach Theatre, Apr 4; the audience vibe was almost as over-the-top as the first half of the production. Yes, let’s get the criticism out of the way first: in Act 1, the creators (listed below) employed every stereotype you could think of. Notable here was the self-absorption of the ‘star’ of a Broadway troupe that gets involved in helping a lesbian girl in Indiana. Collectively, the stereotypes just didn’t click. This is not to say that the actors were in any way lacking. Meredith McCall as the pampered Broadway star Dee Dee Allen was superb.

Despite the issues with Act 1, the musical numbers reflected the storyline extremely well. I found the best to be The Acceptance Song, starring Texas native Gabriel Bernal as Trent Oliver (lead photo). Head-and-shoulders above most other cast members, his stage presence is unmistakable. Combined with a great voice, hot dance moves and varied facial expressions, he was certainly a favourite of the largely gay audience. Trent proudly says that he and his fellow New Yorkers are “Liberal Democrats from Broadway!” The Acceptance Song really encapsulates what this musical is all about, and it puts in a very stark light the blind bigotry that infects the minds of so many people. Trent tells everyone that they can’t cherry-pick what strictures they like from the Bible. He shows that each of them, or their parents, have transgressed. On stage he has played Jesus three times he tells them: “I’ve been crucified three times – twelve if you count the reviews!” The self-reverential satire and humour in this production is top notch.

Every member of the Texas legislature, plus GA, should be required to watch this production.

The Prom has a very large cast, so I can only mention a few, but the cohesion of both the professional cast and the student ensemble was seamless.

The Second Act was imbued with a more believable and authentic aura, as the action switched to the small-town Indiana setting. The song Barry is Going to the Prom was a standout here, and gave actor Ryan Everett Wood a chance to shine in this solo number. As a student, Barry never went to a prom, so getting this chance in mid-life was quite touching.

This is a mix of musical comedy and drama. The drama centers on a 16-year-old lesbian girl, a victim of cancel culture. Emma is played with sensitivity by Ellie Loudermilk; her girlfriend is Alyssa, played by Blakeney Mahlstedt. The town gets together to deny Alyssa the right to attend the school prom, although the school principal, played by Jamie Goodwin, is on the side of Emma. The interaction between Jamie and McCall is a delightful subplot that they lovingly portray, especially through the song The Lady’s Improving. McCall gets to strut as a vamp with this tune. Who could resist?

I can hardly say more without giving away the entire plot. This is a rousing musical, performed with panache by a very talented ensemble cast. Everyone from student to pro should be very proud of what they have brought to the Zach Theatre.

See The Prom at the Zach before it ends May 12

Book by Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin; Music by Matthew Sklar; Directed by Cassie Abate; Musical Direction by Allen Robertson.

Images: Suzanne Cordeiro

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.