Bringing Pride to the Prom, On Both Sides Of The Pond

Bringing Pride to the Prom, On Both Sides Of The Pond

This entire year really seems to be THE year of amazing queer theatre, isn’t it? 20gayteen is real! I’ve already gushed buckets over Head Over Heels, Jagged Little Pill (or at least the best character in the show), Lempicka, Collective Rage, and Torch Song… Well, there’s two more delightful and touching shows I can add to that ever-growing list. One just opened on Broadway on November 15th to ecstatic reviews, the other is a West End smash that just released a professionally-recorded version in US movie theaters for select dates. Both are about gay kids who just want to go to prom like everyone else in their schools. I’m going to talk about both shows and why I absolutely love both of them, and why there’s absolutely room on Broadway for two somewhat similar shows to thrive.

First, let’s talk about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. This pop-rock musical is based on a BBC documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, and tells the story of a gay Sheffield teen named Jamie, who longs to be a drag queen. Jamie wants nothing more than to go to prom in a dress instead of a suit and tie. Though his mum, Margaret, her best friend Ray, his best friend Pritti, and local drag shop owner Hugo, are supportive of him, Jamie must overcome prejudice at school from bully Dean Paxton to embrace his fabulousness and be who he wants to be without fear of rejection. This musical is sort of a hybrid between Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot, but in my opinion, it is a much finer crafted piece of musical theatre. The book by Tom MacRae and score by Dan Gillespie Sells is pretty much note-perfect; I walked out of my screening talking to a few people about how I would change absolutely nothing about the pacing of the piece. I love that it’s not a typical coming-out story - Jamie is out and proud the second he steps on stage. It’s more coming-of-age than coming out in that regard, which I find very refreshing.

The cast of this recorded version is absolutely stellar. Let’s just say if ETAJ doesn’t transfer to Broadway with John McCrea reprising his turn as Jamie, Broadway will be worse off. McCrea gives the most stunning, confident, gloriously fabulous and naturally electric performance I’ve seen since Lucas Steele blew our collective minds as Anatole in Great Comet. McCrea is delightfully fun in Jamie’s lighter moments and crushingly emotional in his darker moments. From his splashy opening number (“And You Don’t Even Know It”) on, you are immediately enraptured by his every move and word. His singing is effortless, and he looks fierce in every single costume Jamie wears throughout his journey to becoming the queen he deserves to be. If he comes to Broadway whenever the show leaps across the pond, I predict a Tony will be his. The rest of the cast is wonderful too. As Jamie’s mum, Margaret, Josie Walker stops the show twice with heartbreaking ballads “If I Met Myself Again” and “He’s My Boy.” Lucie Shorthouse plays dorky but supportive best friend Pritti with a lovely innocence that turns to witty spitfire. Pritti is a Muslim girl who wears a hijab, and the fact she’s a lead character is absolutely refreshing to see in a musical. Every ensemble school kid gets their own individual personality too, which I think is quite fun. It allows the show to have a diverse identity that really resembles an actual British school. I also really enjoyed Phil Nichol’s campy but jovial Hugo and Tamsin Carroll’s Miss Hedge, Jamie’s long-suffering teacher at school. The set is quite boxy (almost three-quarter thrust) with lots of desks and set pieces that roll on from the side and back, and a band situated above the stage in a dimly-lighted box. If the show were to transfer to Broadway, it’d need a house capable of holding this unique staging. I just really hope it transfers in general. If you want a taste of the score before it hopefully takes New York by storm, the West End cast album is available to buy and stream online!

Now, onto the second show - the new Broadway musical, The Prom! Directed by the always-dependable Casey Nicholaw, this musical’s story is one of a culture clash. After a particularly nasty New York Times review (I wonder if it was Brantley or Green… or worse, BOTH), washed-up Broadway narcissists Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, lifetime chorus gal Angie, Juillard-trained cater-waiter Trent Oliver, and frantic publicist Sheldon Saperstein decide to become celebrity activists to prove they aren’t completely full of themselves. So, they hitch a ride on the non-equity Godspell tour bus to Edgewater, Indiana to try and help geeky loner lesbian, Emma Nolan, fight the PTA and school homophobes; they want to give Emma the chance to take her closeted girlfriend to the school prom. Hilarity and heartbreak ensues in equal measure, with lots of signature Casey Nicholaw pizzazz.

With a drop-dead funny book by The Drowsy Chaperone’s Bob Martin, and entertaining music and lyrics by Elf’s Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, The Prom manages to riff on Pence-loving Midwest mindsets, throw showbiz in-jokes around like confetti (Dee Dee carries her Tonys in her purse!), and tell a sweet love story at the same time. That’s pretty dang impressive, if you ask me. It also gets sad and real at times (really real for some people - you WILL cry and gasp at some of the turns the plot takes) but it has a heart of gold and a firecracker wit to balance the dark with light.

A show this swell at multitasking has a cast that delivers all the goods. Brooks Ashmanskas, so memorably funny in Something Rotten! and the dearly departed Shuffle Along, finally gets the leading role he deserves. Barry Glickman is “gay as a bucket of wigs,” and though he’s absolutely full of himself at the beginning, he learns to be a very caring and sweet mentor for our high school heroine. The sight of Brooks dancing around in his pajamas singing “Barry is Going To Prom” is one of the purest expressions of joy I’ve ever seen in a musical. Beth Leavel, the Drowsy Chaperone herself, is just as deliciously diva-tastic here as she was in the show that won her a Tony. Dee Dee Allen is a bit of a tougher narcissist nut to crack than Barry, but her bizarrely sweet romance with the supportive fanboy Principal Hawkins (a comforting Michael Potts, replacing Martin Moran from the Atlanta run) is a fun subplot that allows her to sing a massive Act Two showstopper, “The Lady’s Improving,” which gets both the school principal and the entire Longacre audience on their feet. (Seriously. The second night I saw this show was the night all the Casey Nicholaw alums came to see the performance, and Beth got a full house standing ovation the likes of which I haven’t seen since Something Rotten!) Angie Schworer, one of my favorite Rotten! ensemblists, gets to basically play a snarkier version of herself in this musical, and gets a Fosse homage of her own (“Zazz”) that gets to really show off her “crazy antelope legs.” Christopher Sieber (he of Lord Farquaad and Miss Trunchbull fame) is an absolute riot as Trent, who attempts to write an inspirational song for the activist squad to sing at a monster truck rally (it’s a LONG story). Instead, he ends up writing a trash-terpiece that rhymes “bigotry” with “big of me” and features sign language and recorder solos (which must be seen to believed - an incredible slogan t-shirt that I really want is involved). He also gets a fun gospel-y number where he teaches tolerance to the kids of Edgewater that brought to mind Something Rotten!’s “We See The Light.”

The beating heart of this show, amidst its hammy Broadway glitz and jokes, is sweet Emma Nolan. Caitlin Kinnunen is a natural star, and this role is going to make her a future household name. Her and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (sweetly played by Isabelle McCalla, my Jasmine when I saw Aladdin this summer!) have to overcome bullying from the kids in the halls and the president of the PTA (who happens to be Alyssa’s mother - stony and effective Courtenay Collins, who came all the way from Atlanta to stay with the show). Some of the best and most honest songs in the show are Emma’s - “Just Breathe,” “Dance with You,” and “Unruly Heart” - and Caitlin absolutely knocks them all out of the park. Her chemistry with Isabella is lovely too. (Fun story: when I saw The Prom the night the Casey alums were there, I was in line for the bathroom at intermission when John Cariani - who else would it be? - tapped me on the shoulder, hugged me, and said I should play Emma. I was deeply touched. Emma is a character I would be honored to play. Her struggles are relatable.)

I’d be an idiot if I forgot to mention the ridiculously talented ensemble members, who pull off Casey Nicholaw’s trademark athleticism and razzamatazz with such ease. The choreography is always a highlight of one of his musicals, and here, it’s a knockout.

The last twenty minutes of The Prom had me a sobbing mess both times I went, and Emma and Alyssa’s love story is as touching as the “liberal Democrats from Broadway” story is hilarious. Yeah, one could say the plot is a tad predictable in act two, but I think the happy ending and lessons learned are wonderful, and they leave the audience smiling and cheering. It deserves to run for years.

Now, here we have a quandary. Both musicals, delightful as they are, deal with a pretty similar basic plot question: will our gay teen heroes get to go to prom being themselves? I’d say there is absolutely room for both shows on Broadway. We will have three musicals dealing with pressure to be popular/fit in/be yourself on Broadway by March (Mean Girls, Dear Evan Hansen, and my personal favorite teen-centric musical, Be More Chill) – so why not two gay prom musicals? Both have big sparkly hearts of rainbow gold and tell stories we should be sharing with our youngest, queerest generation and teaching to our older generations that need a lesson in tolerance. Both are wonderfully written and have received rave reviews in their respective countries of origin. And with so many great queer shows on Broadway now or in recent years, there couldn’t be a better time to have an influx of quality gay content! So I say yes, have Jamie transfer to Broadway in a year or so. Yes, go see The Prom and give it the love it deserves. And go see all the queer theatre running on the Main Stem right now!

(Prom photo by Deen van Meer. Jamie photo by Johan Persson.)