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Interview: Attendees invited to 'The Prom' at San Diego City College's Saville Theatre

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, April 19, 2024

Prom nights are popping up around town in the coming weeks for local high schools, but it is San Diego City College’s production of the Broadway musical The Prom that will turn heads for the next two weekends. With book and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, book by Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar, and original concept by Jack Viertel, the musical runs in the Saville Theatre through April 27.

This is the San Diego premiere for The Prom, which won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical Production in 2019, and a version of which debuted on Netflix in 2020. The production, which is being directed by Dr. Katie Rodda and music directed by Richard Dueñez Morrison, follows the inspired-by-real-life story of Emma, a young woman whose dream to take her girlfriend to prom is dashed by small-minded parents who cancel the entire event and launch her, and the town in which she lives, into the national spotlight. This catches the eye of a quartet of Broadway has-beens who decide to bring attention to the issue - and, of course, themselves - and travel to Indiana to make a splash.

Director Rodda, who is a Professor of Dramatic Arts and the Co-Chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at San Diego City College, is excited to share this production and the way in which her own cast, many of whom are LGBTQ+, can see their own identities validated and celebrated through this story.

“For Queer audience members and allies, I think they will love to see themselves represented on the stage. For those who do not know any members of the LGBTQ+ community, or for those who may feel uncomfortable around the idea of same-sex attraction or alternate gender identities, they will be able to see that love is love, and everyone deserves to feel free to be who they are. There’s a line in one of Emma’s songs: “Two people swaying slowly, nothing more and nothing less. Why anybody fears that is anybody’s guess.” That sums it up for me,” noting also that this is a beautiful show for everyone, in spite of some profanity.

“It’s vitally important to tell this story now,” Rodda explained. “There is a lot of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being proposed and passing into law, and a lot of it targets teenagers and kids. Some school districts are forced to “out” Queer kids, and if a student requests that the be called a new name or pronoun, some teachers are legally required to inform that kid’s parents. Rates of suicidal ideation have trended upward among LGBTQ+ young people over the last three years. 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. We’re seeing an uptick in businesses refusing to work with Queer individuals and couples, and considering there is an election on the horizon, we will no doubt see these kinds of issues at the polls.”

From an artistic perspective, Rodda notes that the show has a lot of creative components that really come together, noting that “the choreography by Kristin Arcidiacono is terrific, and Music Director Richard Dueñez Morrison is such a pro that the cast sounds amazing.”

“The show really started to materialize for me when I heard the cast sing ‘Unruly Heart,’” she explains. “To put it in context: Emma, the lead, writes this song as a way to tell her story. She posts it on the internet, and it goes viral, and over a million people see it. In The Prom, we see the people who “watch” her video and respond to it, telling her that she’s not alone and they are seeing themselves represented, maybe for the first time. It is a gorgeous song, and the cast sings it beautifully. When I first heard them sing it in rehearsal, it really hit home to me exactly what this play is about. Truthfully, I choke up every time I hear it.”

Actor Isabella Fernandes, who plays Emma, shared what she appreciates about the character. “Emma is a courageous high school student trying to be herself in a small conservative town. She is driven by her love for Alyssa and just wants to be with her in public without having to hide. Emma is afraid of going on TV to tell her story, especially when 4 narcissistic broadway stars try to pressure her into doing so.” She adds “My greatest challenge with playing Emma was figuring out the backstory of her relationships with the people in the town, and applying that to the driving force of her actions.”

Ultimately, Fernandes sees the value in supporting a sense of community through sharing this show, noting, “The events of The Prom are based on a true story, and Emma probably shares a similar experience with many kids a part of the LGBTQ community. As much as it pains to say it, homophobia still runs rampant even in 2024. I want people to feel seen when they watch this show. That they aren’t alone in their experience, and there is hope that things get better.”

Her cast mate Savannah Comer, who plays Alyssa, agrees. “I’m most hoping that audiences leave The Prom with a heart full of acceptance and love. I hope that this show encourages people to show compassion to everyone, no matter what your beliefs or differences are— because you never know if there’s an Emma or Alyssa in your life. Not only that, but I hope that this production might encourage any of those Emma’s or Alyssa’s out there to unapologetically be themselves.”

Comer’s character, Alyssa, has to navigate some complexity as the plot progresses, and she explains that while tackling that challenge, it was important to get it right. “Constructing her character arc was a careful process for me because I wanted to do Alyssa, and anyone who might find themselves relating to her, justice. On the surface, she’s your typical straight ‘A’, student council president, has her whole life figured out but makes it all seem so easy type of girl— but on the inside there’s so much more. I really wanted to focus on translating Alyssa’s emotions and character depth through physicality on stage, so that the audience could literally see her internal struggles manifesting outwardly. My goal throughout the process of creating Alyssa was to make sure the audience wasn’t only watching her, but feeling with her.”

She hopes that this translates to the show’s attendees over the course of the next two weekends, sharing her goal that “audiences, no matter what age, can find something or someone within the story they can relate to.”

The Prom runs at City College for the next two weeks, with tickets available for Fridays and Saturdays, April 19, 20, 26, and 27 at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, April 25 at 11:00 a.m.; and Saturdays, April 20 and 27 at 2:00 p.m.


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