Julie McGuffey, Jason Cooper, Chad Michael Brosky, & Sandra Rivera in The Prom. Photo: CenterStage

The Prom

Book & Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Book by Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel
Directed by Erin Silliman

A review by Tory Parker

Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved. 

Despite it being everywhere lately, including 2 productions in Louisville in the past year, until seeing this opening night, I hadn’t really engaged with The Prom. From the outside, and from the very limited bit of music I’d heard, it felt like it might have graduated from the Dear Evan Hansen academy, with a book and songs written by grown MEN (always men, usually gay) about the experience of contemporary teenagers, with songs that are lyrically a little shaky, set on top of pop beats, and somehow “going viral” is a major plot point. And after seeing this production of The Prom I can safely say that is all entirely true but with one stark and important difference—I can’t stomach DEH, and I freaking loved The Prom

Our story starts with a group of over-the-top, narcissistic musical theatre has-beens, mourning the crash and burn of their latest Broadway flop. It’s a little hard to feel bad for them, they’re terrible people, but they hatch a plan to rebrand their image and reclaim the spotlight by dedicating themselves to a “good cause.” They come across Emma (Channing Rivera), a lesbian teen in Edgewater, Indiana, whose school has just canceled prom because they will not allow her to take a girl, and they decide this is the cause for them. 

Chaos, of course, ensues when these East Coast liberal elite jazz-handing bimbos blow into small town Edgewater, where Emma’s well-meaning principal, Mr. Hawkins (Frank Goodloe), has almost got the PTA and its fire-breathing leader, Mrs. Green (Jillian Cain), to see reason. I think everyone in Kentucky can relate to the frustration and exhaustion Emma and Mr. Hawkins feel when a group of highly-educated New Yorkers (Trent Oliver, played by Chad Michael Brosky, chimes in to mention he was educated at Julliard) stomps into town, claiming to know best, to be more sophisticated and better equipped to handle this situation they know a tweet’s worth of information about. It’s heavy-handed story-telling, and I squirm to think of it playing to Broadway houses by Broadway actors, but when the joke is made by your own community members, it hits a lot stronger. 

I think a lot of The Prom only works in community and regional theatre settings. When I see James Corden, complete with quaffed hair and limp wrist, make a snide joke about the horrors of Indiana in the Netflix movie, I (rightfully) get my hackles up. When I see Jason Cooper, who breathes his heart and soul into Barry Glickman, do a tongue-in-cheek bit about the perils of Indiana while clutching his mumu, while the audience, many of whom I’m sure crossed the bridge to be there, belly laughs through it, it’s peak comedy. 

There’s also a beautiful authenticity to having REAL teens playing the teenagers in the show. On Broadway or other professional stages, these would be 22 – 34-year-old conservatory triple threats. They’re young, but they’re not 16, and any earnest youthfulness they’re trying to portray onstage is learned, no longer felt. But at CenterStage, these kids are actual kids, and it makes the story feel so much closer to us. These kids, Channing Rivera, Leilani Bracey, Liv Ashley, Kennedy Julian, Drew Ashley, Cooper Turk-Gagel, Gillian Dickinson, Jiam Curry, William Paxton, and Zoe Petriprin, are incredibly!!!! talented, and triple threats in their own right, and have to go to real high school in the morning. 

And because our heroine, Emma, is played by a high school freshman and not a 25-year-old MFA grad, we have to face the truly soul-crushing reality of her circumstances in a new way. She’s been kicked out by her parents, bullied by her classmates, discriminated against and punished by the adults who control her educational environment, abandoned by her closeted girlfriend, and publically humiliated by her whole town. All of that feels like a lot to put on a kid, like an almost unrealistic farce of a bad lot. But The Prom is based on a true story. And every queer person you know sees a little part of their lived experience in there. And, on February 8, 2024, a nonbinary 16-year-old named Nex Benedict died in Oklahoma, after they were attacked in the girl’s bathroom at Owasso High School. 

Channing Rivera and Leilani Bracey as Emma and Alyssa shoot right for your heart. Statuesque and confident, Rivera’s Emma is tired of living in the shadows. She gives the character a kind of wrecking ball, “nothing to lose” energy. So of course she’s in love with the softer, more aloof Alyssa Green, whose mother is holding her white-knuckle close, demanding perfection and obedience. Bracey’s big moment comes with “Alyssa Greene,” where she is desperately trying to make Emma see why openness and bravery cannot mean the same thing for them both. Bracey delivers a perfect, broken-hearted plea. 

It’s not all sad songs and trauma! The show is a love letter to musicals, which homages to Fosse (performed with a sweet and ZAZZ-y twist by mother-daughter duo Channing and Sandra Rivera), Godspell, Les Mis, and more. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious and a rip-roaring good time! Honestly, the least sparkly part of the experience was the crowd at opening night, who were NOT appreciating the razzle-dazzle bubbly fun time of the show. It’s ok to have FUN at the play, folks, this isn’t All My Sons. Let’s clap on the downbeat. 

Musicals, flashy as they are, get a bad rep for being “escapist” entertainment, but in a beautiful moment between Broadway legend Dee Dee Allen (Julie McGuffey) and certified Big Fan, Mr. Hawkins, he explains that the difference between escaping and distracting is that escaping lets us heal. 

Spoiler: The Prom has a happy ending. All of the problems faced in the show, including the really big ones like homophobia, bigotry, and prejudice, are not gone because the play ended. But neither have we distracted ourselves from them. We let ourselves escape into this glittery, magical world, where those problems are solved, albeit in somewhat different styles, but in a lot of the same ways. Characters in the show act as a family when their real family abandons them. Characters talk through their differences, find shared values, and remember what’s important to them. Characters make sacrifices for each other and learn how to be better and more generous human beings. In this escape, we can see the world how we want it to be. But just like in the show, if we want a prom where everyone is welcome, we’ll have to host it ourselves. 

Featuring Channing Rivera, Leilani Bracey, Julie McGuffey, Jason Cooper, Sandra Rivera, Chad Michael Brosky, Frank Goodloe, Rusty Henle, Jillian Cain, Liv Ashley, Kennedy Julian, Drew Ashley, Cooper Turk-Gagel, Alexis Paxton, Seth Brewer, Natalie Minton, Austin Seeley, Sarah Zigrye, Gillian Dickinson, Jiam Curry, William Paxton, and Zoe Petriprin

The Prom 

February 22 – March 3, 2024

Trager Family Jewish Community Center
3600 Dutchmans Lane 
Louisville, KY 40205

Tory Parker, originally from West Virginia, is now a proud Kentuckian as well. In Louisville, she’s worked and/or performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company OutCast, SHOTZ, Highview Arts Center, and director Emily Grimany. She is a co-founding artist of the queer theatre collaborative, three witches shakespeare, and of Untitled Louisville Theatre Company. As a playwright, her full-length drama, Recommended for You, appears in Stage It and Stream It: Plays for Virtual Theatre, and her original works have appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival Fringe Festival.