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The Prom, Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams

Posted 12/7/18

The Prom, reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

The Prom is the kind of feel-good show that manages to send up Broadway tropes —outsized egos, dramatic affectation and faux crusades — even as it takes on a contemporary issue – gay kids experiencing a traditional rite of high-school passage: the prom.

Now at the Longacre, The Prom boasts some serious Broadway vets, including comedy queen Beth Leavel, who can get a laugh by the flick of a finger or an exaggerated pose. She’s gold here as actress Dee Dee Allen, who’s just bombed in a show about Eleanor Roosevelt and longs to reclaim the spotlight.

The plan: She and costar Barry (a sassy and engaging Brooks Ashmanskas), along with two colleagues, go in search of a cause — and find it in conservative Edgewater, Indiana. That’s important, because in this sleepy Midwestern town where nothing ostensibly happens, something is: The town is banning the prom because a gay student wants to take a date.

Kudos to writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin; they move beyond stereotypes to a more layered approach. True, there is a certain red state-blue state dynamic, but there’s also a fair amount of purple. Everyone, teens and adults alike, learn valuable lessons about validation and the downside of narcissism and control.

They supply enough zingers to keep the pace lively — and the insights heartfelt.

What’s wonderful is the exuberance of Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography and the emotionally melodic and nuanced score by Matthew Sklar, with lyrics by Beguelin.

Of special note, the younger leads, a lovely, nuanced Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma, the sensitive teen at the center of the maelstrom, is so genuine, a little gawky and a lot brave. She isn’t a poster child for a cause; she’s a teenage girl in love, who, to quote Madonna, just wants to have fun. No political ax to grind, as her perfectly delivered “Dance With You” makes clear.

Her innocence along with sweet-but-skittish girlfriend Alyssa (an excellent Isabelle McCalla) is all the more touching because their journey ultimately brings out the best in self-involved adults, be it Juilliard-educated Trent (Christopher Sieber) or Broadway dancer Angie (Angie Schworer), whose “Zazz” is a show-stopper.

As he did in The Drowsy Chaperone, Nicholaw keeps the action going with a sure hand, while infusing Prom with intimate moments of loneliness, fear and joy. The Prom is an excellent vehicle for a national tour, given its embracing message, while on the musical comedy front, the production is pure delight — a fun, cheeky show from beginning to end.

On the traditional entertainment front there is Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams, now at the New Victory Theater. It boasts expert jugglers, dazzling acrobats, balancing acts that defy logic and contortionists that make you wonder if there are limits to the human body.

Where it differs — and this is a welcome change — is indicated in the title Ethiopian Dreams. There is a dream-like, trance-like quality to the show. Performers are dressed in traditional African clothing often shrouded in mist, a droll clown act offers a curious vocal call that seems to come from the recesses of sleep. Musical cues alternate from high-energy dance numbers to a lone drum on a darkened stage.

Audiences willing to sit back and let the show wash over them will be highly rewarded. Don’t expect a red-nosed funnyman and swirling lights behind unicyclists juggling bowling pins, this is thoughtful artistry in motion. —Fern Siegel