A program for The Prom, a 2018 Broadway musical now playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Minnesota

Review: Broadway Fantasy Meets Midwest Reality in “The Prom,” Now at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

I grew up near Chanhassen Dinner Theatres out in the suburbs west of the Twin Cities. For most of my adolescence, the long-running regional theater powerhouse was a quick 15-minute drive away. But when I was in high school, it never crossed my mind that it would be something I, a young person, would enjoy. I was into Spring Awakening and Avenue Q, and CDT wasn’t known for grappling with the bleeding edge of musical theater. 

After decades of staying within the reliably profitable realm of musical theater canon and crowd-pleasers for older audiences, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is taking a risk with The Prom, which opened on Friday and runs for an abnormally short four months (Footloose, their last show, ran for a year). The musical comedy premiered on Broadway in 2018 but closed after just nine months. A movie version chock-full of A-listers (James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington) came to Netflix in 2020, but has generally been forgotten amid lackluster reviews. And then there’s the artistic director of this production, Michael Brindisi, who told the Star Tribune he thinks “some of our audience is going to be turned off by the lesbian thing”; the musical follows a group of narcissistic Broadway actors who travel to the Midwest to “help” a high schooler who is ostracized for wanting to attend the prom with her girlfriend.

With all of those asterisks tacked onto The Prom before the first note was even sung to an audience sated with oven-roasted chicken, you’d be justified in wondering why Chanhassen picked this musical. After attending opening night on February 17, it’s perfectly clear to me: The Prom is an unexpected delight that puts the Netflix movie to shame. It’s a life-affirming whirlwind that bridges the generational divide the headlines will have you believe is growing wider every day. There are songs my grandma would love, songs high schoolers will want to belt in their rundown sedans, all stitched together with the twists, turns, jokes, and drama you want in a first-rate musical comedy. 

It was an open question if a Minnesota audience would accept The Prom, which was written by Bob Martin (book), Chad Beguelin (book and lyrics) and Matthew Sklar (music). The show begins with the aforementioned NYC thespians who, after their new Broadway musical flops with The New York Times, decide to attempt an image revitalization by taking on the cause of Emma Nolan. They’re “gonna help that little lesbian,” as they sing, by going to Edgewater, Indiana and confronting the anti-LGBTQ high school PTA which canceled the prom after Emma invited another girl to the dance. (The story is loosely based on various real events, and feels relevant here in Minnesota in 2023.)

For us in the audience, Indiana is not interchangeable with Minnesota, but to these Broadway actors it might as well be since they’re both in the Midwest. The reprise of the opening song “Changing Lives” refers to the “fist-pumping, bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-humping” residents of the state. We’re supposed to laugh at these shallow New Yorkers and their East Coast elitism, but you can also see how an NYC audience would laugh with them, because they also likely couldn’t tell Edgewater from Chanhassen. 

The Prom navigates this potential pitfall in a few ways. Crucially, CDT cast the delightfully hammy Tod Petersen (a local legend for his annual holiday show, A Christmas Carole Petersen) as Barry Glickman, one of the two Broadway actors panned by the Times; the other is Dee Dee Allen (played by Jodi Carmeli). The rest of the Manhattan-to-Midwest coterie includes Angie Dickinson (Helen Anker, who completely disappears into her role as a Chicago chorus girl), publicist Sheldon (the deadpan Jay Albright), and Trent Oliver (Shad Hanley, who takes the lead on two songs, but I wanted even more). Trent is a reluctant addition to the group, because Barry and Dee Dee loathe his incessant talk about his Juilliard education. And that’s where the Minnesota audience can connect: the self-styled elites become more relatable when they accuse someone else of being pretentious, especially when those elites are as chummy as Petersen’s Barry. 

Do the Broadway has-beens and never-beens swoop in and save the day for Emma? Of course not. They actually manage to escalate the situation when they burst into a PTA meeting brandishing protest signs, one of which reads, “No More Mister Nice Gay.” This is where the plot gets interesting, but it’s also where the show transforms into something more than an inside joke.

There are plenty of navel-gazing musicals that cater to people who already love the theater, stuffed with Broadway references and winks to people in the know. When The Prom gets to Indiana, it becomes a hybrid of sorts, mashing up the (admittedly hilarious) fan service with a thoroughly modern musical. On the theater insider side, there’s a Chicago ripoff “Zazz” at the beginning of Act 2, where Angie tries to boost Emma’s confidence. On the contemporary side, there are songs like Emma’s snarky-yet-sweet intro “Just Breathe” and her duet with her still-in-the-closet girlfriend Alyssa Greene, “Dance With You,” an infectious love anthem.

Monty Hays, who plays the wide-eyed student in the middle of this debacle, could not be a more perfect fit for Emma. They bring a welcome awkwardness to the role, as any high schooler would be in this situation, a noted contrast to some of the chorus members who bring plenty of High School Musical energy. More importantly, though, Hays can sing the hell out of this role, which is tasked with delivering all of the earworms among Sklar and Beguelin’s songs. Yes, Hays experienced a couple moments of hesitation, and a few instances where it seemed Brindisi or choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson could have given them a little more to do than simply stand still and sing, but they stuck the landing on opening night, completely winning over the audience (myself included). 

The audience eating dinner before The Prom, a new musical at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Pro tip: Order the rainbow cake for dessert (and decaf coffee), which is served during intermission.

Apart from Hays and Petersen, there were two other standouts among the cast. JoeNathan Thomas as high school principal Tom Hawkins provides the most consistent comedic relief of the night, nailing every punch line while also taking what could be a throwaway ode to the theater, “We Look to You,” and turning it into a dramatic highlight of the first act. Hanley works similar magic with “The Acceptance Song,” a promo for the Broadway troupe’s pro-Emma, anti-PTA protest that takes place at a monster truck rally, and “Love Thy Neighbor,” Trent’s attempt to convert the other high schooler’s to Emma’s cause. Both of these require a surefooted comedic anchor, and the convincingly earnest Hanley is more than up to the task.

The villain in this story turns out not to be the misguided thespians, but the prom-canceling head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Tiffany Cooper), who also happens to be the mom of Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa (Maya Richardson, who is taking on this role after starring as Ariel in Footloose). As Emma and her unsolicited cheerleaders get closer to reinstating the prom, Mrs. Greene finds a way to thwart them. In the end, the anti-gay parent can’t possibly win, we know that; however, the lack of exploration of this character is one of the main flaws of the show. If The Prom really wants to change minds with its message of acceptance, why does it leave the main antagonist unchanged?

In CDT’s production, there are a few similarly odd decisions. When you’re eating your dessert during intermission, you may find yourself asking your neighbors, as I did, “Why is there a space-themed backdrop?” Despite The Prom taking place in bedrooms, monster truck rallies, and high school gymnasiums, the theater’s stage (scenic design by Nayna Ramey) features a constant background of stars and a gigantic planet, as well as a cherry blossom tree. Brindisi provides some context for this in his director’s note in the program, and a fun piece of stage wizardry illuminates the meaning in Act 2; it’s an interesting idea, but one that ultimately gives The Prom a foreboding feeling throughout, like they’re channeling Don’t Look Up.

One of my favorite parts of seeing The Prom at CDT was hearing the reaction. There were dozens of moments during the show when single audience members guffawed, finding something so funny that their laughter rose distinctly above everyone else. I had at least one moment like this myself, when Barry makes an out-of-left-field joke that references The Human Centipede. As is the case with any musical worth its salt, there were collective moments of laughter, awe, heartache, and glee throughout, but these individual moments of uncontained, unexpected joy show the real wonder that awaits you at The Prom.

You can read a synopsis of this musical online, you can watch a subpar version of it on Netflix, you can make predetermined judgments about it (as Edgewater does about Emma), but it’s best to open yourself up and take a risk alongside Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. If you do, I think you’ll find yourself in my shoes: dreaming about one more night at The Prom.

Interested in going to The Prom? I’m part of a wonderful group called the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers, and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is offering a $20 discount for all of our readers when you use the code TCTB1 at checkout. The discount code is good for any show between now and March 12th, but we hope you’ll consider booking for the Saturday matinee on March 4th. After that performance, some of the TCTB members will be doing a talkback with actors from the cast. Dress in your prom best, come say hi, and get a little more bang for your buck on March 4th!

Discount code for The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Our code is good for any show between now and March 12th!
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