Bright, shiny Prom arrives in time for Pride

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Above: The national touring company of The Prom, a lively musical about a lesbian teen in Indiana, is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: Kaden Kearney (left) is Emma and Kalyn West is Alyssa, the couple at the center of controversy in a small Indiana town. Photos by Deen Van Meer

Though Casey Nicholaw isn’t exactly a brand name on Broadway like, he absolutely should be. With shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, Nicholaw is able to combine his talents as a sterling director of musical comedy and as a choreographer who knows how to show off dancers, tell a story and keep the show moving.

The Prom, a 2018 Broadway musical (and a star-studded Netflix movie two years later), proves a marvelous showcase for Nicholaw, who mostly manages the sharp shifts from bouncy, silly comedy to something darker and more rooted in real life. As fun as it is, nobody will ever accuse this frothy work of musical comedy of being a hard-hitting documentary.

The national touring production of The Prom, now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, feels like bits of other shows – The Producers, Dear Evan Hansen, Hairspray – mashed together together to tell the story (based on true events) of Emma, a 17-year-old lesbian in a small Indiana town who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom. The local PTA has a conniption fit and cancels the dance altogether before the State’s District Attorney forces them to resume the event.

Book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the lyrics) smartly dumb things down to recognizable stereotypes that are, in true 21st century fashion, slightly more woke than your parents’ stereotypes. The engine of the plot isn’t the actual discrimination happening in America’s heartland but what a quartet of award-winning Broadway narcissists are going to do about it.

Two-time Tony Award-winner Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and one-time Drama Desk Award-winner Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) have just been lambasted by New York critics to such a degree that no one will want to work with them again anytime soon. So with the help of a perpetual ensemble member named Angie Dickinson (Emily Borromeo) and a Juilliard-trained waiter/actor named Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), they pick a cause at random to prove that they can think of something or someone other than themselves. They land on Emma’s sad story and hitch a ride to Bumpkinville on a bus-and-truck tour of Godspell to Indiana.

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The ego-bashing send-up of Broadway celebrities provides abundant fodder for comedy as the proud (if idiotic) New York liberals clash with the small-town homophobes, who are practically holding pitchforks as they rail against the presence of a young lesbian in their midst.

As long as comedy and sweetness are the prevailing winds, The Prom sails happily. But at the end of Act 1, the whole town, adults and kids, gangs up in Emma in such a cruel, humiliating way that comedy feels uncomfortable. In Act 2, the show never fully regains its buoyancy, mostly because the stereotypes of mean and stupid townsfolk is never really resolved, even though everyone supposedly embraces the joys of diversity and inclusion.

But Act 2 does have the fun faux-Fosse number “Zazz” and the incredibly sweet “Barry’s Going to Prom” (performed with irresistible exuberance by Wetzel). The most memorable songs in the score by Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar, “Unruly Heart” and “It’s Time to Dance,” help the show end on an upbeat note and spark an incredibly enjoyable curtain call.

The entire cast here is appealing – even the villain, PTA president and helicopter mom Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria) – and the ensemble, which has to be snooty New York theater patrons, Indiana teens and cruel adults, has an infectious spirit and keeps the stage fizzing and popping with Nicholaw’s vivacious choreography.

Proms in this country have become a rite of passage, but there’s not a lot of depth there (dressing up, drinking, sweaty gym dancing, sex in cars). Still, we take the rites we can get, and if they become a matter of civil rights, perhaps the needle on empathy and acceptance can actually move in a positive direction. The Prom sends show-biz satire and queer rights issues arm in arm to the dance – and truth be told, they have a pretty good time and discover a bump or two of joy along the way.

The Prom continues through July 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Review: `The Drowsy Chaperone’

Opened July 23, 2008 at the Orpheum Theatre

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone joins stage star Janet Van De Graaff (Andrea Chamberlain, center, leg in air) in the show stopper “Show Off.” The Tony Award-winning musical is at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Photos by Joan Marcus

Shadows hover over daffy, delightful `Drowsy’
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Musicals don’t come much sweeter than The Drowsy Chaperone.

The little Canadian musical that began life as a wedding present and then blossomed in to a 2006 Tony Award-winning hit is on the road and is now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

For a frothy musical, it’s fairly high concept. A nameless man in a chair (a completely charming Jonathan Crombie, below) attempts to stave of his miserable life for a while by listening to a favorite original cast album.

“I hate the theater,” he mutters in the darkness as the show begins. He then proceeds to tell us how modern musicals are dull and dreary and overblown and that his greatest pleasure in life has been from gorgeous, silly musicals of yore. To make his point, he pulls out some classic vinyl: the 1928 score for Gable and Stein’s The Drowsy Chaperone starring Jane Roberts, the “Oops Girl” and venerable British actress Beatrice Stockwell before she was made a dame.

It’s a complete fiction, of course, invented for the purposes of this musical, but the fake show’s authenticity is half the fun as it begins to unspool in the man’s dingy studio apartment with ongoing commentary from the man, who is in musical theater heaven while the music plays, and only occasional interruptions from the ghastly real world.

Crafted in vintage ’28 style, the musical numbers of The Drowsy Chaperone, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, are light and airy, funny and forgettable – in other words, just right. As the Man in the Chair says, musicals should help one “escape the dreary horrors of the real world.” And this is a musical that does…to a point.

While the silliness of “Drowsy” trills and tap dances along its merry way, book writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar (two of the brains behind the brilliant Canadian TV series “Slings and Arrows”) sneak in some welcome depth through the character of the Man in the Chair. That’s not to say this is heavy going, but this is mindless entertainment with a mind.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings a precise knowledge of old-fashioned musical theater to the production that keeps the effervescence bubbling and the charm churning. As the man’s record turns, his apartment becomes more and more overlaid with the country estate sets (by David Gallo), and Ken Billington and Brian Monahan’s lights become more fantastical and beautiful.

We’re never fully caught up in the story of the silly musical – a great follies star is about to forsake the stage to marry an oil tycoon and her producer and the producer’s mafia connections fear that losing their star will mean losing their fortunes – because the Man in the Chair keeps pulling us back.

In his oversized sweater and threadbare corduroys, the Man weaves in and out of the musical theater stars, sometimes pausing the record so he can tell us that this actor was eventually found dead in his apartment, but not until five days after his actual death and his body had been partially consumed by his poodles.

“Try not to think about the poodles,” the Man says before the actor begins a song.

The Man also gives us glimpses of his real life – his failed marriage (he didn’t know how to stop it from starting), his Zoloft addiction and his hermetic, anti-social ways. This is a man who, for all his charm, is lost to the world. He may love musicals, but they’re really just a patch on his concerns about, among other things, pornography and global warming.

But that’s what makes The Drowsy Chaperone more interesting than other retro-musicals such as No No Nanette or Sugar Babies.

And then there’s the energy of the high-spirited cast. The touring show features some standout musical performers, namely Andrea Chamberlain as stage star Janet Van De Graaff (her showstopper “Show Off” lives up to its name), Georgia Engel (Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) as loopy Mrs. Tottendale and Mark Ledbetter as the tap-dancing, roller-skating groom.

I was a little disappointed in Nancy Opel’s take on Janet’s chaperone, a boozy Brit with the requisite inspirational anthem about alcoholism (“As We Stumble Along”). Opel has a sharp, shrill voice and comic chops that stop just short of being hilarious. She’s funny, but just not quite enough.

The same is true for Dale Hensley as Italian lover Aldolpho. It’s tricky to play a bad actor and be funny doing it, and Hensley is far from a bad actor; he’s just not quite big enough –metaphorically speaking – for this goof of a character.

It’s hard to complain about anything when a show is this much fun. The Drowsy Chaperone, which runs under two hours without an intermission, is lovely and lively with real-world shadows lurking at the edges and threatening to spoil all the fun.

Here’s a little taste of Drowsy Chaperone: