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REVIEW: Building The Prom for Everyone (Chanhassen Dinner Theatres)

The cast of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ new production of The Prom, now playing in Chanhassen, MN. Photo by Dan Norman Photography.

Hell hasn’t exactly frozen over, but the thermometer eased over freezing this weekend in the Twin Cities. Thus, one can say empirically that the musical The Prom, which opened Friday at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, is heating things up.

The brainchild of theatre producer and Broadway theatre owner Jack Viertel, The Prom first appeared in an Atlanta tryout in 2016, where Variety‘s Frank Rizzo called it “very funny, tenderhearted.” The musical hit New York City’s Great White Way in 2018 for a 9-month run that garnered a Critics Pick honor from the New York Times. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but lost to Tootsie. During the pandemic, it made a splash with a film adaptation for Netflix featuring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.

“Flowers accept the rain /
And grow more beautiful / Babies accept their mother’s breast / So they can grow strong / I accept that I was born a handsome man /
So join with me and sing this acceptance song” – Trent (Shad Henley) leads the company in one of The Prom‘s signature songs. Photo by Dan Norman Photography.

The Prom‘s story, loosely based on a number of real-world incidents, involves a same-sex high school couple: Emma Nolan (played by Monty Hays) and Alyssa Greene (Maya Richardson) plan to attend their high school prom, only for the local PTA to cancel prom entirely, rather than let them attend. Our introduction to Emma and Alyssa’s story, however, comes through four middle-aged New York actors down on their luck – Barry Glickman (Tod Petersen), Dee Dee Allen (Jodi Carmeli), Angie Dickinson (Helen Anker), and Trent Oliver (Shad Hanley). In a leap of logic, the quartet decide that what they need to revive their careers and to undermine their image as super-narcissists is some celebrity activism for a good cause. The cause of choice? This young Indiana couple.

Spoilers Ahead

A little legal pressure and support fro the school’s principal (Principal Hawkins, ably played by JoeNathan Thomas) later, prom is back on the high school menu. Not to be deterred, the head of the PTA – and Alyssa’s mother (Mrs. Greene, portrayed by Tiffany Cooper) – creates an alternative Prom at a private venue, not telling Emma or the Principal. Emma is humiliated as the only person attending the official Prom at the school.  The efforts of the visiting celebrities to help Emma mostly backfire, including an unfortunate appearance at a local Monster Truck Rally.

This being theatre, things get bad before the tide finally begins to turn. There are reminders about the bedrock principles of Christian values, rising confidences, and comings out, a crush turned to romance, and – finally – public celebration.

The cast is wonderful. In particular, Monty Hays as Emma is spectacular, capturing the vulnerability and longing, hope and resignation embodied in this normal and slightly nerdy young woman through dialogue, singing, and movement.  Other standouts include Tod Peterson as Barry Glickman, who brings great energy and just the right does of campy to the role. Maya Richardson as Alyssa exudes sweetness throughout.

As the New York Times reviewer stated about the original Broadway production, this is a “joyful hoot.”  Many kudos go to its creators: Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin wrote the book, Matthew Sklar composed the music, and the songs feature lyrics by Chad Beguelin. The choreography by Tamara Kangas Erickson is great and spirited, brought to life by a host of talented dancers in the cast. The fusion of these elements is a fun and uplifting evening for one and all (well, at least for all except those still deeply offended by young people loving whom they love).

Emma (Monty Hays) and Alyssa (Maya Richardson) pair the The Prom‘s star-crossed couple. No, really – stars kind of mess things up for them for a while. Photo by Dan Norman Photography.


For all the enjoyment of the evening, there is still a nagging concern.  We live in a country where one of the major political parties is making attacks on trans individuals central to their culture war, and where homosexuals are portrayed in parts of the media as pedophiles and “groomers”. Despite all the heartache, humiliation, and hate that its main character endures, The Prom seems like a nicer, gentler world.  When things were at their lowest for Emma, she (still) says: “Everyone has good in them” – an echo, perhaps, of Anne Frank’s famous statement, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

Here, one also recalls Dara Horn’s incisive comment:  “[Anne] Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ three weeks before she met people who weren’t.”  Of course, we don’t meet any Nazi soldiers in The Prom, and among those who opposed Emma, the students are ultimately persuaded to the right side. The one remaining “villain”, Mrs. Greene, is shown to be merely a misguided mother, trying to keep her daughter away from pain and hardship, in the aftermath of anguish because her husband had left her. (At one point, Alyssa declares that her mother believes that if she, Alyssa, was perfect, her father might come back.).  If only it were this easy in real life for goodness and love to triumph!  But, as Principal Hawkins declares, theater is about escape, taking us away, and making the real world seem less sad (and where “people dance in unison, And no one wonders why”).

Broadway stars to the rescue! Photo by Dan Norman Photography.

The Prom runs on the Main Stage at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through June 10. 

Brian Bix