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Two Takes on America’s Divide

In “Prom,” lessons amidst merry mayhem; Colin Quinn falls short

Angie Schworer and Caitlin Kinnunen in Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, and Matthew Sklar’s “The Prom,” directed by Casey Nicholaw, at the Longacre Theatre.
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It’s difficult to think of any situation more fraught with drama (with a capital “D”) than a Midwestern teenager agonizing over prom. Okay, maybe a narcissistic Broadway actor reeling from an excoriating review. These two seemingly unrelated worlds come crashing together in the new musical “The Prom,” which despite a ridiculous set-up manages to be adorable, political (in a soft-focus sort of way), and thoroughly entertaining.

Think of it as a backstage story gone slightly off the rails mashed up with a tale of teenage angst, as if “The Bandwagon” was spliced with “Dear Evan Hansen.” It’s not quite satire, but it’s not quite serious either. Still, thanks to a witty book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin with often-hilarious lyrics by Beguelin and catchy music by Matthew Sklar, “The Prom” for all its contemporary topicality is delightfully and unabashedly a classic musical down to the footlights.

When Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickson get horrible reviews for an instantly closed musical based on Eleanor Roosevelt, they discover their images as selfish celebrities are hurting their chances for continuing in show business. Along with a cater-waiter, Julliard grad Trent Oliver, and a 20-year veteran of “Chicago,” Angie, who has never gone on for Roxie Hart, they decide that aligning themselves with a cause will be just the ticket to relevance… and career rescue.

After a quick flip through Twitter, they discover Emma, a young woman in Edgewater, Indiana, who is being vilified for wanting to take her girlfriend to prom. They hitch a ride with Trent’s non-equity tour of “Godspell,” and they’re off to save the day. Or so they think. Emma, who proves to be more mature and resourceful than the actors, is perfectly willing to fight her own battles, with the assistance of her sympathetic school principal. The actors arrive, and all is disrupted, which provides the main action of the play. In traditional musical fashion, even among the chaos, hearts and minds are changed. The well-intentioned but essentially clueless actors manage to affect change, even as they become a bit more selfless (which requires maxing out credit cards), the closed minds of the town are opened, and everyone kisses and dances at the end. This last can’t possibly be a spoiler. I already told you: it’s a very traditional musical.

With direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, the show is a complete romp. The entire company is practically perfect, hitting just the right balance of over-the-top antics and believable, if absurdly heightened, characters. The actors are played by Broadway veterans and master comics Christopher Sieber as Trent, Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry, Angie Schworer as Angie, and Beth Leavel as Dee Dee. As one would expect in such an undertaking, each gets a feature number, and they all shine. Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma is a terrific counterpoint to the excesses of the theatrical cohort. She starts out grounded and cautious, but enough showbiz savvy rubs off so that she is quite dazzling by the end. She’s certainly not Gypsy Rose Lee, but Emma does take to the spotlight and, not surprisingly in a modern tale, finds that social media is her medium.

The show looks as fresh and vibrant as it did when it opened late last year. This review was delayed because Leavel was out at the first performance I attended. (Her standby, Kate Marilley, was outstanding.) My high school didn’t have a prom (long story), so I’m especially glad that I got to go to this one twice.

It’s got to be difficult in the current culture to do political humor. There’s so much of it — and so much tragicomedy in day-today living — that the real challenge is trying to come up with something original that goes beyond the obvious and advances the conversation.

Colin Quinn’s new show “Red State Blue State,” is intermittently funny, but it’s also labored. He has nothing particularly interesting to say that hasn’t been said before. The culture is divided; free speech is problematic; Trump is a “compulsively tweeting totalitarian psychopath.” Quinn wanders the stage, and he tries to be balanced in his skewering of people and topics. No one, except Trump, really comes in for anything more than a poke. The jokes are often so predictable that by the time they land, they’ve lost their punch. There are high points, such as a riff on the Founding Fathers, but those are offset by extended segments including snarky one-liners about each of the 50 states, most of which could have been culled from the humor pages of “Reader’s Digest.”

This is too bad. Quinn has been really wonderful in pieces such as “An Irish Wake” and even his more political pieces like “Unconstitu­tional” and his history of the world “Long Story Short,” but in addition to trying to balance being edgy and inoffensive, he seems to be struggling to find a coherent theme and through-line, so the impact of his usually trenchant take on the world turns out muted and bland. Perhaps that’s because this production is a tryout for distribution of the show on Audible. That would explain the effort not to offend audiences on either end of the political spectrum, but it’s the death knell for effective comedy.

THE PROM | Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$169 at theprommusical.com/tickets or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins., with intermission

COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE | Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Ln. | Through Mar. 3: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 6:30 p.m. | $67-$97 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 | One hr., 15 mins., no intermission

Updated 4:40 pm, January 31, 2019
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