‘The Prom’ doesn’t dance around issues of discrimination

Kallie Brown (left) gives Emma Hall a lesson in Zazz in the spring musical "The Prom."
Kallie Brown (left) gives Emma Hall a lesson in “Zazz.”

The spring musical at the University of Southern Maine is called “The Prom.” For some members of the cast, it’s more than just play-acting. It’s the closest they’ll ever get to a full prom experience.

“My proms were never standard because I had prom during COVID years,” said Emma Hall. “Getting to do this show kind of feels like I’m getting the prom I wanted that I never got to have because it was ruined by the virus that caused the entire world to shut down.”

Hall is a junior majoring in Musical Theatre. She stars in the show as a teenager also named Emma. Her character is sick of hiding that she’s a lesbian and wants nothing more than to attend the prom with her girlfriend. But students and parents line up against her in their belief that the prom is for straight couples only.

As the director, Danny Hutchins worked hard with his cast to do right by the LGBTQ community. The importance of authentic and sensitive representation was often discussed at rehearsals. And yet, “The Prom” is still very much a comedy, showing that it’s possible to be both responsible and funny at the same time.

The cast of the spring musical "The Prom" use Broadway flair to change public opinion in a small town where a lesbian student has been forbidden to bring her girlfriend to the titular school dance.
The show mines comedy from the tension between celebrity culture and small-town values.

“We’ve made sure to keep representation and telling queer stories at the forefront of our work,” Hutchins said. “For so much of theater — and especially musical theater — history, queer characters are often portrayed as stereotypes or the butt of the joke. This show really goes in a very different direction.”

That commitment extends beyond the stage. The show’s two-week run includes a special performance on Saturday, April 13. A portion of the proceeds will go to the nonprofit organization OUT Maine to help with its work in support of LGBTQ youth through events like the Rainbow Ball Weekend.

“I hope that people find safety in the show to be themselves and, no matter how they identify, to understand their own personality and understand that you will find someone eventually that you are okay to share your life with,” Hall said.

Hall’s character finds that special connection with Alyssa Greene, played by Karoline Brechter. Alyssa is still in the closet out of fear of disappointing her mother. For Brechter, a sophomore in the Musical Theatre program, high school is a recent memory. She was a cheerleader, just like her character.

“I definitely use a lot of my experience in high school to prepare for this role,” Brechter said. “And a lot of it doesn’t even feel like acting because, when I’m dancing at the end, I feel like I’m just dancing at the prom having a good time with all of my friends.”

Karoline Brechter (left) and Emma Hall play star-crossed lovers in the spring musical "The Prom."
Acceptance doesn’t come easy for characters played by Karoline Brechter (left) and Emma Hall.

Song and dance are woven throughout the show under the guidance of musical director Ed Reichert. He and his band of student musicians perform in full view from the back of the stage instead of hiding away in an orchestra pit. The show requires them to play everything from aching love songs to dancefloor bangers.

Most of Brechter’s songs are ballads. “Love Thy Neighbor” is not one of them. But that’s her favorite song in the show even though she’s off stage when it’s performed. It’s an ensemble set piece with rat-a-tat comic energy. Adding to her fondness for it is the lead vocalist played by her brother, Louis.

“I love being able to go to college with my brother and do theater with him,” Brechter said. “I love watching him do that, and I love watching everybody have fun with the tambourines. You really see everybody putting their own personalities into their characters.”

Louis Brechter’s character is Trent. He’s one of four washed-up Broadway stars who try to rehabilitate their reputations by making Emma’s prom dreams come true. The collision between low-grade celebrity and small-town values generates much of the show’s comedy.

Even the targets of the show’s satire couldn’t resist its charms. It was a hit upon debuting on Broadway in 2018 and won the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical that season. A movie version starring Meryl Streep premiered on Netflix in 2020.

Everyone hits the dance floor for the finale of the spring musical "The Prom."
Everyone in the cast hits the dance floor for the big finale.

Opening night at USM on April 5 marked the first time the show had ever been staged in Maine, edging out a production by the Lyric Music Theater in South Portland, which is set to launch on June 14.

“For folks who see the show, this will be the production that sticks in their head as they see further productions of it,” Hutchins said. “We’ve really tried to spend a lot of time thinking about the story and the way we want to portray it to ensure that we are leaving the best impression of the show with folks as we can.”

“The Prom” will finish its nine-show run this weekend at USM’s Russell Hall in Gorham. It’s a joint production of USM’s Department of Theatre and the Osher School of Music. The Sunday show is sold out, but tickets for the Saturday show are still available online or at the Russell Hall box office.