Remember Tracy Turnblad?
The rotund epicenter of “Hairspray,” the girl with the big bouffant had the audacity to integrate a 1960s Baltimore dance show in the 1988 John Waters film, adapted for Broadway in 2002.
Now, Tracy finds her gay equivalent in Emma, the teenage lesbian who stirs up controversy, and unintentional comedic bedlam, when she invites her girlfriend to the high school dance in “The Prom,” the Broadway-bound world premiere that opened Wednesday at the Alliance Theatre.
When the PTA cancels Emma’s prom, the story spreads with the wildfire speed of social media.
As it happens, a gaggle of Broadway thespians whose Eleanor Roosevelt biography has just closed on the night it opened is looking for a bit of good publicity. To the horror of Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) and the delight of her high-school principal (Martin Moran), the performers rush in to quash the bigotry.
So, before James Madison High School will allow same-sex couples to dance, Heaven, Ind., will be treated to the shenanigans of this troupe of self-infatuated theatrical marauders.
As conceptualized by Broadway producer Jack Viertel, with music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a book by Beguelin and Bob Martin, “The Prom” is part public service announcement (“Let the gay kids dance!”) and part valentine to the outrageous egos of the Great White Way.
A crowd-pleasing spectacle with a well-intentioned message and enough youthful energy to fuel Broadway’s “Bring It On: The Musical” (which opened at the Alliance in 2011) and Disney’s “High School Musical” franchise in its entirety, “The Prom” is delightful good fun.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“Tuck Everlasting,” “The Book of Mormon”) has assembled a mostly top-notch cast and design team. (Scott Pask’s set, Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman’s costumes and Kenneth Posner’s lighting suit the story superbly.) And Nicholaw has created dances that set the mood for this journey of teenage angst and raucous navel-gazing.
The problem is, the tale that purports to be about Emma and her girlfriend Alyssa (Anna Grace Barlow) is pretty much bulldozed by the antics of the uninvited New Yorkers: swishy Barry Glickman (Brooks Ashmanskas); washed-up Juilliard grad Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber); tall blonde Angie (Angie Schworer); penguin-shaped press rep Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon); and narcissist scenery chomper and belter extraordinaire Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel).
With Dee Dee, the writers have invented a prima donna for the ages. Holy moly, Leavel is good. It’s easy to overlook Schworer’s Angie, what with all the sashaying of her cohorts. But, when she tries to teach Emma about “Zazz” (that indefinable charisma that Bob Fosse somehow managed to define), she’s wonderful.
Alas, though we anxiously await Emma’s transformation (and I do believe she undergoes one), Kinnunen never quite conveys it, never finds her Zazz.
You can feel Martin’s hand in the shaping of the Broadway coterie; he co-wrote the book for “The Drowsy Chaperone,” for which Leavel originated the title role, after all. You also can detect his touch in the character of Mr. Hawkins, the principal, who is a close cousin of the daydreaming Man in Chair of “Drowsy.”
Moran is excellent as the nervous Mr. Hawkins, who sympathizes with Emma and idolizes Dee Dee but is too milquetoast to take on the PTA power structure that bans the prom. (Namely, Courtenay Collins’ Mrs. Green, who parallels the racist Velma Von Tussle of “Hairspray.”) Though the villainous Mrs. Green is a bit of a caricature, Mr. Hawkins is richer and fuller. (Watch how Moran slowly melts when Dee Dee seduces him with her song, “The Lady’s Improving.” Hilarious.)
In the end, “The Prom” may need a bit of a tweak before it lands on Broadway. (Let’s just hope it doesn’t go the way of “Tuck Everlasting,” which lost so much of its lovely, soulful sheen on the ride.) But, for the most part, it’s good to go.
“Hairspray” ended with “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” “The Prom” ends with a similar victory lap, “It’s Time to Dance.” In both cases, the meaning is clear: tolerance.
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 25. $20-$95. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000. alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: Zany shows can have a social conscience.