LGBTQ+ teens have had to fight for inclusion in school proms for many years – a situation that has inspired some timely recent theater. In 2012, Boston Children’s Theatre staged “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,” a moving dramatization of real-life Pawtucket, R.I. senior Aaron Fricke’s ultimately successful 1980 struggle to attend his school’s prom with his boyfriend. The similar 2010 efforts by Fulton, Miss., senior Constance McMillen inspired the creation of a 2018 musical counterpart appropriately called “The Prom.” SpeakEasy Stage Company artistic director Paul Daigneault is giving this alternately touching and humorous 2019 Tony Award nominee a Calderwood Pavilion staging that is at once both riveting and rousing. (It also was a 2020 Netflix movie starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and James Corden.)
Set in present day New York and Edgewater, Ind., “The Prom” disarmingly begins with the opening night closing of a Broadway premiere titled “Eleanor! – The Eleanor Roosevelt Story.” Despite the presence of two-time Tony Award winner Dee Dee Allen in the title role and two-time Drama Desk Award winner Barry Glickman as FDR, terrible reviews turn the show into an instant flop.
Allen and Glickman seek out a cause that will benefit their reputations – with the latter promising “We will become celebrity activists.” Hub veterans Mary Callanan and John Kuntz deliver tour de force fun as the initially insincere self-promoters.
That self-promotion does lead Allen and Glickman to find what fellow actor Trent Oliver calls a “cause celebre” – a prom challenge at James Madison School in politically conservative Indiana involving lesbian senior Emma Nolan. It will take some real soul-searching for Allen, Glickman, Oliver, and an accompanying “Chicago” ensemble player and jaded Fosse woman named Angie Dickinson to actually make everything about Emma and her initially closeted girlfriend Alyssa (student council president and daughter of the PTA president). Before the quartet and press agent Sheldon Saperstein pay for a truly inclusive prom, a culture clash ensues as well as an “alternate” prom organized by homophobic parents that leaves Emma alone at the originally scheduled one. As the actors bring Emma’s inclusive prom to life, they experience their own rite of passage from self-centered performers to truly caring ones.
Matthew Sklar’s tuneful music and Chad Beguelin’s insightful if sometimes humorous lyrics help to make both the quartet’s transformation and Emma and Alyssa’s heartfelt connection fully convincing. Callanan has the opportunity to display her trademark belt as diva Allen. Kuntz, always expert at comedy, also proves persuasive at singing and phrasing as Glickman. Troilo, who possesses one of the Hub’s finest voices, has a standout number “Love Thy Neighbor” as Oliver gives Emma’s fellow students a needed lesson about love and understanding. Liesle Kelly is a revelation as vulnerable Emma – especially in serenading Alyssa on the sweet number “Dance with You.” Abriel Coleman captures Alyssa’s evolution from ambivalence to coming out.
Other strong efforts include Anthony Pires Jr.’s supportive Principal Hawkins, Lisa Yuen’s often frustrated Dickinson, and Meagan Lewis-Michelson’s shrewd Saperstein. Taavon Gamble’s exuberant choreography has high school students executing high lifts and impressive turns. Paul S. Katz conducts the talented orchestra effectively though there are some overly loud moments.
“Hairspray” proved a feel-good show even as it railed against racism and prejudice involving body shape. “The Prom” does the same for LGBTQ+ bigotry. Θ
The show runs through June 10 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. For tickets, call 617-933-8600 or visit speakeasystage.com.