By Chloe Robertson/Kent State NewsLab
Porthouse Theatre is performing the musical “The Prom” until Aug. 6 — the first LGBTQ+ production done at Porthouse Theatre. The show is a contemporary comedy that features a gay couple as the main focus of the story.
With lawmakers in state houses across the country advancing a record-breaking amount of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, this performance of “The Prom” becomes political, the cast said.
“We have patrons who are not going to like that. But they’re the people who need to see the show and come with an open mind,” Terri Kent, the director of “The Prom,” said.
The show follows a group of narcissistic Broadway actors who are working to complete acts of service in order to obtain more publicity and fame. A trending news story catches the actors’ attention: an Indiana school’s PTA is objecting to a young woman, Emma, wanting to take her girlfriend to the prom. They decide to become Emma’s heroes by protesting her town’s homophobic tendencies.
Porthouse Theatre is Kent State University’s outdoor summer theatre located on the grounds of Blossom Music Center. The goal of this theatre is to give students an opportunity to work alongside professional actors in professionally-modeled productions, Kent said.
“I saw ‘The Prom’ on Broadway. And I always tell people, it’s the only show I’ve ever paid to see twice,” Kent said.
Kent also explained how she worked to make sure the heartfelt story about inclusion and tolerance was performed by someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“It was important to me that whoever played Emma was authentic in that role. And we were so fortunate to find Lane,” Kent said.
Lane LaVonne is a junior musical theater major at Rider University and they have the task of portraying the role of Emma in “The Prom.” This is LaVonne’s first time playing a queer character and their authentication of the role comes directly from personal experiences.
“There are a lot of things that are said on stage in this show that have been said to me in real life,” LaVonne said. “I don’t think that playing a role like this — I would never be able to do it as authentically as I’m doing it if the people around me weren’t so great.”
Nationwide, over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced this year. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 220 of those bills are targeted at transgender and non-binary individuals and a record of 70 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted so far this year.
In Ohio, the House of Representatives recently passed HB 8 and HB 68. HB 8 is modeled after Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and HB 68, as amended, prohibits gender affirming care for transgender youth and bans transgender students from participating in school sports consistent with their gender identity.
Not only do these bills directly affect the actors in “The Prom,” but they also increase the importance of the show’s main message, which is one of inclusivity.
This is not the first queer production that has raised and attracted controversy. In 2021, Ohio’s Hillsboro High School drew national attention when they canceled their production of “She Kills Monsters” — then raised thousands of dollars to put on the show independently. Just like “The Prom,” “She Kills Monsters” addresses LGBTQ+ relationships and issues in an entertaining and interactive performance.
However, Kent says this is an important story that needs to be shared with a wide audience, in spite of the possible backlash.
Kent has also connected with the KSU LGBTQ+ Center, which plans to attend performances to provide information and solidarity.
“I think at the heart of the story, it’s about people realizing the power of helping others and effecting change on a grassroots level,” Eric VanBaars, who plays Barry Glickman, said. Just like LaVonne, this is VanBaars’s first time portraying a queer character.
Many of the actors in the show are aware of the fact that some of the Porthouse Theatre patrons might be taken aback by an openly LGBTQ+ story, but they believe the story is one worth seeing.
“I would just hope that everyone that would be curious to see it would come in with an open mind to the message, as opposed to closing the door,” VanBaars said.
Senior Kent State musical theater major Jocelyn Trimmer, who plays Emma’s girlfriend Alyssa in the show, says many people her age experience, recognize and are exposed to LGBTQ+ stories. In her eyes, some older audience members have yet to be introduced to stories like “The Prom.”
“But it’s important to show an LGBTQ+ story in such a beautiful and celebratory light and show how amazing it can be to an audience who isn’t familiar with stories like this,” Trimmer said.
Even though “The Prom” is a story some Porthouse patrons may not have seen before, Kent is working to make everyone feel welcome.
“I’m trying to walk a line that both allows the story to be informative, while not alienating people,” Kent said. Kent hopes to entice the audience with entertainment and let the message of the story do the rest.
“The Prom” showcases back-to-back numbers full of dancing, singing and laughter. Each cast member plays a role in telling the comedic yet earnest story.
“One minute we’re all laughing and then the next we’re crying,” Kent said.
This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative newsroom staffed by Kent State students.