When it comes to lampooning the state of Indiana as a hotbed of homophobia, Paul Rudnick definitely got there first with his screenplay for “In & Out.” That 1997 movie comedy starred Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack as two high school teachers, who, on the eve of their wedding, watch the Academy Awards only to discover that one of them, via an ex-student’s acceptance speech, is gay. Very gay.
Apparently, Indiana hasn’t grown more enlightened in the intervening years, at least as evidenced in “The Prom,” the new Broadway musical that opened Thursday at the Longacre Theatre. This time around, The Homosexual in question is a lesbian teenager who is very out in Edgewater, Indiana, and wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. The problem is, the girlfriend hasn’t disclosed her sexual orientation to classmates or mom, who’s leading a campaign to prevent any same-sex couples from attending the annual spring ritual.
And the other even bigger problem is that those two young lesbians, Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), aren’t Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack.
Perhaps “The Prom” book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin thought they needed to ground their musical with two such serious lesbians. In their plodding way, Emma and Alyssa make a case for why no one, straight or gay, should be forced to live in Indiana. But need the two girls be so dour and dull?
Rudnick ridiculed bigoted Hoosierites by turning them into buffoons, with Bob Newhart’s high school principal the most befuddled of the dithering lot. In “The Prom,” Alyssa’s right-wing mother (the very intense Courtenay Collins) is only slightly to the left of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in the humor department.
Before I risk turning “The Prom” into Broadway’s answer to “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” it should be noted that the romantic trials of Emma and Alyssa are almost (but not quite) a subplot. The musical begins engagingly at an after-party for a flop Broadway musical, based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, that finds four out-of-work actors looking for a noble publicity stunt to goose their flagging stage careers. Their chosen cause celebre is Emma and Alyssa’s prom.
The good news is that these four Broadway losers score: Angie Schworer is the merry epitome of every second-rate Roxie Hart, only leggier. Christopher Sieber makes us believe that Juilliard, indeed, was his career high point — and he’s proud of it. Beth Leavel offers an uproarious glimpse of what Liza Minnelli would be if she’d continued performing. And Brooks Ashmanskas somehow manages to be even gayer on stage than ever before.
The whole second act of “The Prom” exists only to give each of these four veterans his or her own showstopper. Too bad the material doesn’t equal their talents. Only the song “Zazz” (about Bob Fosse’s direction of “Chicago”) really delivers, and Schworer is stunning.
Earlier in the show, Sieber sings a purposefully dreadful number titled “The Acceptance Song.” It’s something Sieber’s character wrote himself after Stephen Sondheim passed on the assignment. Although we’re told “The Acceptance Song” is the absolute worst, it’s not immeasurably different from the other 14 songs written by Matthew Sklar and Beguelin for the production.
Director Casey Nicholaw knows precisely want to do with his four ham actors, but leaves stranded the two lesbians and the many bigots surrounding them. His choreography makes this prom one high school dance worth attending. But then you realize you’re watching a bunch of homophobes kick up their heels to have a good time. It brings to mind that Mississippi senator’s public hanging.