I can pinpoint the moment Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' "The Prom" shifted from hilarious-but-silly to heartfelt.
It's in a scene with the two key characters: Barry (Tod Petersen), a vain Broadway semi-star who brought his Great White Way pals to Indiana to whip up favorable PR, and Emma (Monty Hays, who uses he/they pronouns), an Indiana teenager whose high school canceled its prom rather than allow her to bring her girlfriend Alyssa. The moment comes at the end of the first act, when Barry — who would like to get a standing ovation every time he turns on a light switch — sees some of himself in Emma. Petersen looks encouragingly at Hays and we understand that Barry, possibly for the first time in his life, is eager to hear someone else sing a solo.
"The Prom" can seem like two shows happening at once.
One is full of big laughs at the expense of the Broadway stars who vow to "change the world, one lesbian at a time." The other is the sweetly sincere story of Emma, who just wants to be a teenager but finds herself thrust into the chaos caused when the visitors anger residents of Emma's town with their activism.
More than other productions I've seen of "The Prom," director Michael Brindisi's nails down the quieter moments. Emma and Alyssa could get lost in the midst of the brassy Broadway stars and their classmates' cheer-team-style dance moves. They're not, though, because Brindisi gives them room to register real emotions, and Hays and Maya Richardson, as Alyssa, are terrific. Hays' impressive voice straddles the big belt required by the showier songs and the folkier vibe when the character is in the room playing the guitar.
Petersen also is exceptional. Sequin-forward Barry's mission to turn the Indiana squares into jazz squares could make him seem like a caricature of a brassy gay man but Petersen makes sure we see the hurt behind Barry's mask. That balance of humor and heart is tricky — as his pal Dee Dee, Jodi Carmeli is outstanding when she's singing but hasn't settled on how broad to be the rest of the time — but it mostly works.
One of the smartest things about the musical is that although it's clear whose side it's on, it acknowledges the situation of the Indiana residents. When Alyssa's mom tells Dee Dee and Barry, "You know nothing about us," she's right. The bedazzled Broadway bulldozers haven't even bothered to learn the name of Emma's community and it's only when they begin to open up that the showfolk and townsfolk realize they have a lot in common.
That's a great, if not especially trail-blazing, message.
In the end, "The Prom" is just a really entertaining show. The songs are catchy. The jokes keep coming. Tamara Kangas Erickson's choreography, with influences from hip-hop to Bob Fosse, fills every inch of the stage with energy and fun.
By the end, it feels like you've been invited to the prom you wish you'd had. And, this time, you can bring whomever you want.
Who: Songs by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar. Book by Beguelin and Bob Martin. Directed by Michael Brindisi.
When: 8 p.m. Tue., 1 & 8 p.m. Wed., 8 p.m. Thu.-Fri., 1 & 8 p.m. Sat., 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends June 10.
Where: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen.
Tickets: $53-$93, 952-934-1525 or chanhassendt.com.