During the deliriously zany setup for “The Prom,” a new musical comedy now at the Longacre Theatre, I thought I might have died and gone to campy heaven. The feeling doesn’t last, but the laughter never dies.
Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas, two Broadway troupers not afraid of going over the top, play two Broadway troupers who don’t just chew but swallow the scenery. Dee Dee Allen (Leavel) is an aging diva with two Tony Awards she carts around in her bag just in case anyone needs reminding. All Barry Glickman (Ashmanskas) has is a Drama Desk Award, but he’s every inch a thespian — and “gay as a bucket of wigs” to boot.
“The Prom,” which has a book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin and a score by Matthew Sklar and Beguelin (who collaborated on “The Wedding Singer”), begins backstage on opening night for “Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical.” Dee Dee and Barry, criminally miscast as the Roosevelts, are anxiously awaiting the reviews. The minor papers pay dutiful homage, but the New York Times bulldozes them out of the theater district.
Broadway publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon in the nuttiest suits you’ve ever seen) explains to Dee Dee and Barry, “It’s not the show. It’s you two. You’re not likable.”
Stung by the thought that they might never work again on Broadway, Dee Dee and Barry hatch a plan to rehabilitate their narcissistic reputations. Hearing about a lesbian high school student in Indiana who is being barred from her prom, the two enlist Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber), an actor-cum-waiter with a Julliard pedigree he lords over everyone, and Angie (Angie Schworer), a leggy dancer who’s been stuck in the chorus of “Chicago” for an eternity, to join them and indispensable Sheldon on their little red state crusade.
This flamboyant group hops a ride on a “Godspell” company tour bus to save Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen), who looks like she might die of embarrassment when Barry announces that they’re going to hold a rally for her — with banners and choreography! Dee Dee naturally turns to song: “How do you silence a woman who’s known for her belt?”
When Mrs. Greene (Courtenay Collins), the conservative PTA leader who forbids any same-sex dating at a school event, demands to know just who these histrionic intruders think they are, Trent declares, “We’re liberal Democrats from Broadway!”
The whole script might be punctuated with exclamation marks because that is how it’s played. At least by the leads, who under the fizzy direction of Casey Nicholaw keep ratcheting up the mugging and gesticulating to the point of near apoplexy.
There are quieter story lines, involving Mr. Hawkins, the considerate school principal (Michael Potts) who advocates for Emma while he courts Dee Dee at Applebee’s (a new culinary experience for the grandiose star). And then there’s the issue of Emma’s closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), whose mother just happens to be the campaigning homophobe on the PTA.
The music has the ring of pastiche. The lyrics are more memorable than the melodies, which have a generic Broadway tone. Dee Dee’s big number, “The Lady’s Improving,” is written for an Ethel Merman on steroids. (Leavel has the lung power.) Kinnunen is a fine naturalistic actor, but after all the rampant hilarity, I couldn’t work up much emotion for Emma’s soul-searching song “Unruly Heart.”
The longer this brand of musical comedy plays out, the hollower it seems. (Broadway should outlaw intermissions for spoofs — 90 minutes and out comes the hook.) What started euphorically ended in a state of exhaustion, though when the final number, “It’s Time to Dance,” enticed the cast to rock out at full force, the audience rose to its feet at the curtain call and eagerly showed its own happy moves.
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