You might wince at the prospect of a group of Broadway egotists landing in a conservative town to fight for a teen lesbian to bring her date to the prom — but it turns out to be a happy merging of disparate worlds in “The Prom,” a loopy, loving and joyous musical receiving its world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater. Think “Fun Home” meets “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
“Drowsy” co-creator Bob Martin co-scripted this very funny, tenderhearted show with Chad Beguelin (“Elf,” “Aladdin”), once again tapping into the power of positive showtunes — and the ways they can inspire, energize and comfort. Director Casey Nicholaw (“Aladdin,” “Something Rotten!”), who helped bring a balance of sweet Broadway aspiration to “South Park” attitude in “The Book of Mormon,” corrals a crackerjack cast that mixes outrageous ham with schmaltz. Don’t be surprised if “The Prom” gets a Broadway corsage.
A quartet of “bloated relics of the theater,” desperate to be more likable, try to change their image by fighting against “a little injustice that we can drive to.” This self-obsessed troupe is led by diva Dee Dee (Beth Leavel, pulling out more stops than Dorothy Loudon in her prime), her flamboyant co-star Barry (Brooks Ashmanskas, “gayer than a box of wigs”), forever-chorine Angie (Angie Schworer); Juilliard fave-turned-waiter Trent (Christopher Sieber) and publicist Sheldon (Josh Lamon), who might not deliver Jimmy Fallon but can book a monster truck rally.
The proceedings are propelled by Nicholaw’s energetic and witty dances, plus a pleasing score by Matthew Sklar (with Beguelin supplying the bright lyrics) that refresh showtune templates with nods to Kander & Ebb, Stephen Schwartz and Jerry Herman.
Keeping the initial one-joke concept from veering completely off the rails are the human characterizations of some of the folks in Heaven, Indiana: Caitlin Kinnunen’s Emma — the plucky-but-anxious gay teen who just wants to dance with the person she loves; her still-closeted cheerleader girlfriend Alyssa (Anna Grace Barlow); and their sympathetic principal Mr. Hawkins (Martin Moran, evoking Man in the Chair from “Chaperone” with his loving fan song to Dee Dee at an Applebee’s, “We Look to the Stars.”)
Transformation is the emotional thread deftly woven throughout, in the town’s shifting attitude toward Emma in “Love Thy Neighbor” (though that old saw of a theme could use some freshening); in Emma finding her inner “zazz,” thanks to Schworer’s fantastic leggy lesson; even in Dee Dee’s attempt at caring for others — while still staying in the spotlight — in the belter “The Lady’s Improving.”
Not everyone will catch the show’s plentiful Broadway references to “Carrie,” Fosse and Bernadette — there’s even a costume homage to William Ivey Long — but that doesn’t matter much when the gags are played by a group of pros having a field day with show-biz indulgences.
The musical also nicely taps into the power of social media, the importance of the courts and the generational shift in attitudes about gays, movingly expressed by Emma and Barry. In the end, you can’t help but share Ashmanskas’ boundless exuberance when he, too, finally gets asked to the prom. That’s when worlds merge, into the happy bliss of Musical Comedy Heaven, Indiana.