Jennifer Riddle & John C.Collins in The Awesome 80’s Prom. Photo by Kelly McCoy.
The Awesome 80’s Prom
By Ken Davenport and The Class of ‘89
Directed by Rachel Allen
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Awesome 80’s Prom is a bit of a high-wire act. A bare-bones script with large swaths of improvised, audience participation, the relatively brief one-act is a balloon that must be kept in the air lest it puncture and deflate. On opening night, with the help of a ready and eager crowd, this Alley Theater production never let it touch the ground.
Director Rachel Allen immerses the audience in the staging. She has you greeted by Senior Class President Michael Jay (Ethan Corder) and Melissa Ann Martin (Ali Gautier), the Head of the Prom Committee, and the performance space includes tables and chairs that position you in the middle of the action.
You are also asked to vote for the King and Queen of the prom, welcomed onto the dance floor, and offered your fill of cupcakes and punch. If audience participation turns you off, then this show is not for you. The normal seating is also available but offers no escape from the insistent cast, who engaged each and every audience member in conversation throughout the evening.
The “plot”, such as it is, consists of a series of announcements from the microphone by uptight disciplinarian Principal Snelgrove (Shelby Simpson) and the excessively bubbly Mrs. Lascalzo (Teri Carlson), who you just know imagines she is the “fun” teacher that all of the kids love. Football Team Captain Blake Williams (John C. Collins) and Head Cheerleader Whitley Whitaker (Jennifer Riddle) are on-again/off-again throughout the party. Stereotypes abound, nerd, geek, jock, freak, etc. It’s kind of like an improvising through the outline of a John Hughes.
The ensemble consistently maintains their energy and focus so that scripted scenes and lengthy improve sequences feel organically connected. Ms. Allen’s background is largely in imrov comedy, and she shapes these loose periods so that the narrative can be followed easily. Melissa gets drunk for the first time, Blake and Whitely make up passionately, super Nerd Louis Fensterspock (Nick Benson) is trash-canned by football player Beef (Brandon Saylor) and Bad Boy Nick Fender (Topher Smith), and it all happens between the scripted moments.
That reliance on the audience to “play their parts” is very risky. Opening night included several people who came ready to engage, but a different group with a less agreeable attitude could easily throw the production off. Perhaps this game cast is up to that challenge. Jennifer Riddle is the epitome of the supreme, big-hair, 1980’s prima donna, while John C. Collins hits all the right notes as the arrogant Big Man On Campus. Ali Gautier was very funny playing Melissa’s descent into drunkenness on the dance floor, and, despite his very adult facial hair, Nick Benson absolutely nailed the mannerisms of super nerd Louis. Shawn Franklin is much more than just a heavily moussed hairdo as Dickie Harrington. But honestly, there didn’t seem to be a weak link in the bunch, and I can easily imagine that different performances will offer each ensemble member to shine at different times.
Top it all off with a “greatest hits of 1980’s films” soundtrack and the entire 75 minutes felt just right on opening night. This is one of those shows with a good many obvious jokes, but there are so many puns and bits of business that any groaner is quickly overcome by a solid laugh or moment of genuine silliness before you have a chance to dwell on it.
Come prepared to dance and eat cupcakes, avail yourself of the adult beverages at the concession stand, and The Awesome 80’s Prom will provide a fun evening of diversion and, for those of just the right age, nostalgia for a time you thought you wanted to forget.
The Awesome 80’s Prom
March 8 – 24, 2018
The Alley Theater
615 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.