Will Chanhassen Dinner Theatres audiences embrace a musical about a teenage lesbian couple?

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is taking a huge risk with its new production of “The Prom.”

After watching the electric, expertly presented opening night performance Friday, it’s easy to understand artistic director Michael Brindisi’s rationale on staging the show. As he wrote in his notes in the program: “When I first saw this play a couple of years ago, I was most taken with how it reminded me of the musicals I grew up on. It was a book driven, very funny, original score … A Musical Comedy.”

Indeed, “The Prom” does feel like an old-school musical in its structure, pace and execution. The engaging songs sound instantly familiar, and there are ample opportunities for the ensemble to engage in dazzling dance routines. (And, like musicals of yore, the lengthy second act could easily lose 15 minutes if the writers didn’t insist on giving each of the five principals a showcase number.)

Yet it’s the modern-day premise – one that is currently unfolding in real time across the country – that makes “The Prom” a tough sell to certain audiences. Plainly stated, the musical tells the tale of a teenage lesbian couple in rural Indiana who face seemingly insurmountable odds in their quest to attend their high school prom together.

Even in these days when states are attempting to pass legislation banning books and targeting LGBTQ people, the theater has traditionally served as a place where such conversations are welcomed. One could see a well-funded local legacy institution or a smaller, scrappier company mount a production of “The Prom” to critical and commercial success.

But that would be a run of a few long weekends or a month tops. CDT’s production will chug along eight days a week for four months, which is actually a short engagement for a company known to keep a show going for up to a year. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has a faithful core audience that will flock to weekend shows or use “The Prom” as the accompaniment for their own personal celebrations. And the company’s aggressive advertising campaign is likely to draw in newcomers. But those midweek productions and Wednesday afternoon matinees that rely on out-of-towners and retirees looking for familiar comfort could prove challenging to fill.

In many ways, “The Prom” echoes “The Music Man,” the CDT production that bookended the pandemic lockdown. A group of city slickers with questionable motivations descend on an unsophisticated small town and unexpectedly end up forever changed in the process.

The musical ran on Broadway for about 10 months in 2018, but it’s probably best known to theater fans for Ryan Murphy’s 2020 Netflix adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key and (a particularly insufferable) James Corden.

“The Prom” opens with a quartet of self-absorbed Broadway stars – Dee Dee Allen (Jodi Carmeli), Barry Glickman (Tod Petersen), Trent Oliver (Shad Hanley) and Angie Dickinson (Helen Anker) – stuck in a career rut. They decide the way out is to champion, and ultimately conquer, a cause. Solving world hunger is out of reach and they’re not cut out for the actual work of, say, Habitat for Humanity. After hitting Twitter, they discover Emma (Monty Hays), whose prom was canceled by the PTA because she wanted to attend with her girlfriend. (The show is very loosely based on actual events at a Mississippi high school in 2010.)

With overarching themes of acceptance and love is love, “The Prom” manages to preach without being preachy, thanks in large part to its big heart and sly sense of humor. The Broadway stars ooze with comically blind narcissism and the goal of their activism is not equality, but rather a career boost and some good press. (Their first act production of “The Acceptance Song,” backed by a cut-rate touring “Godspell” ensemble, offers the biggest laughs of the evening.) Meanwhile, the would-be villain of the piece isn’t evil as much as she is concerned for her daughter and fearful of change.

“The Prom” has plenty going for it, and Monty Hays’ star-making performance as Emma seals the deal. Hays proves both utterly compelling and intimately relatable as an unassuming young woman with a simple goal. Anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or misfit, in any situation, will see themselves reflected in Emma. And that makes “The Prom” such a memorable and joyous evening of theater.

‘The Prom’

When: Through June 10
Where: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen
Tickets: $98-$53 via 952-934-1525 or chanhassendt.com
Capsule: It’s a cheery and infectious old-fashioned musical set in the very modern day.

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