Unruly Hearts Change Minds in ‘The Prom’

Poster for Queen's Musical Theatre's production of 'The Prom'. The title, dates, and ticket information are in the poster with a red background and a disco ball.

If nobody has asked you to The Prom yet, take this as a sign to find a date. Mixing teen movie aesthetics, Broadway sensibilities, and contemporary social values, Queen’s Musical Theatre presents a high-energy production in the Rotunda Theatre this winter. 

Directed by Noah Solomon, The Prom’s spotlight falls on Emma Nolan (Nicole Martin), a teenager in Edgewater, Indiana. Emma has been banned from bringing her girlfriend to the high school prom, and her story quickly becomes an Internet sensation. Meanwhile, a posse of Broadway has-beens led by Dee Dee Allen (Kate Megginson) are looking for a cause to champion. They soon show up in Edgewater to razzle-dazzle their way into the hearts of small-town conservatives—and to get a photo op, of course. 

Knowing little more than the title, and having skipped my own prom, I’ll admit I was skeptical going in, but The Prom won me over with its wildly implausible plot and zazzy storytelling. Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel, The Prom premiered on Broadway in 2018, with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Bob Martin and Beguelin. The book and lyrics are peppered with musical theatre in-jokes and self-satisfied wordplay (the obligatory ‘lesbian’/‘thespian’ rhyme appears within the first number). The Prom stretches stereotypes but seldom breaks them, and I was unsurprised to learn that Glee’s Ryan Murphy produced and directed a 2020 film adaptation for Netflix. 

As Dee Dee, Megginson leads the troupe of wayward Broadway actors: fading fashionista Barry Glickman (Connor Bosy), perpetual chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Marlee Schwartz), and has-he-mentioned-he’s-Juilliard-educated Trent Oliver (Lucas Nasu Nielsen). Megginson is a powerhouse performer, bringing a blend of leading lady charisma and cynical attention-seeking to Dee Dee. Speaking to my soft spot for pretentious dorks, Nielsen’s performance as Oliver is a wonderful send-up of the overeducated, overconfident actor trope. Leyla Boyacigil makes a similarly snappy appearance in the minor role of Sheldon, the team’s PR manager, who delivers some of the best one-liners. Costume designer Rachel Rusonik dresses everyone to the nines—from a jaw-dropping red pantsuit to what can only be described as a disco ball in dress form, the outfits are top notch (and that’s not even mentioning the Stitch onesie… you’ll have to see it for yourself). 

Over in Edgewater, set designer Marijka Vernooy has created some clever rotating set pieces, facilitating quick changes between the high school’s hallways and gymnasium. The high school ensemble is lively, and Aiden Robert Bruce is compelling as Mr. Hawkins, the straight-laced principal whose strong moral fibre leaves Dee Dee’s principles looking flimsy. Dominique DelBen brings some surprising moments of depth to hand-wringing homophobe Mrs. Greene. Meanwhile, Martin’s characterisation of the brave social outcast Emma is impeccable, and her voice is a treat to listen to, especially in the soft, fluttery vibrato on her high notes. 

Sitting in the audience on opening night, I felt some occasional emotional dissonance. Homophobia is no joke, and while the show is intentional about targeting bigots as the butt of its humour, there were moments when the levity onstage—and the laughter of the audience—felt at odds with the sinking recognition I felt as a girl who dated girls in high school. This empathy with Emma led to some deep catharsis in the second act when she sings “Unruly Heart”, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room (or at least in my row) once the ensemble joined in harmony. 

With recent rises in anti-2SLGBTQIA+ legislation and moral panics around so-called parents’ rights, The Prom is a timely selection, and Solomon makes it clear in the program note that this choice is no coincidence. The show’s message of inclusion is clear, and although the blend of a conventional coming-out story with absurd celebrity antics feels a little silly, it’s nice to escape into a world where everything works out for queer people. With peppy lighting design (Sara Starling) and flashy costumes (Rachel Rusonik), The Prom delivers on its promise of a memorable night out. If The Prom had existed when I was a teen, you can bet I would have bought a ticket—and my unruly heart would have thanked me for it. 

Queen’s Musical Theatre presents ‘The Prom’ in Theological Hall’s Rotunda Theatre until Sunday, January 28th. Tickets and more information can be found here.