Theatrical adaptations of real-life events are a bit of a dodgy prospect — they can be overly earnest, and in their zeal to be faithful to fact, can sacrifice character, emotion, and generalizability. So if you were waiting for someone to see Theatre Calgary’s The Louder We Get for you and scope it out, wait no longer — this production is an absolute must-see, and you don’t want to be the only one in the lunchroom with nothing to contribute because you missed it.
The real-life story was that of Marc Hall, who tried to take his boyfriend to prom at a Catholic high school in Oshawa in 2002. He was told that he couldn’t do so, because his homosexual “lifestyle” violated church teachings. He challenged the school’s decision to the school board, and ultimately took it to court. In the stage version, Marc (Evan Kinnane) and his boyfriend Jason (Nick Dolan) are thrown reluctantly into the limelight as they become media sensations. Marc’s best friend Carly (Katie McMillan) rallies their high school classmates to the fight, and they launch a campaign to support Marc. Lawyer Lonnie Wynn (Thom Allison) finds Marc via his webpage, and offers to assist in bringing a court challenge to let Marc attend prom with Jason.
The book by Kent Staines tells the tale without being preachy and didactic, which is a risk with a story like this. There are subplots involving Marc’s classmates, all of them struggling to find their authentic voice, that elevate the story beyond activism around a specific issue and suggest that even as culture changes and (hopefully) boys can take boys to prom without fear, the musical will continue to be relevant. In one such sidebar, Carly is pursued by the school Lothario who insists on referring to himself in the third person. “I don’t need a man to legitimize my prom,” is Carly’s refrain, but in the background, she has had her heart broken and keeps her defences firmly in place to guard against a repeat injury.
The music (Colleen Dauncey) has a pop theme overall, but the tone and colour of each piece is unique and memorable. In the manner of every Big Broadway Musical, the lyrics (Akiva Romer-Segal) don’t try to be too profound, but they are clever, funny, and moving. Say Yes is a very solid opening ensemble number, and The Louder We Get was being hummed by more than one audience member on their way out of the theatre at intermission — that’s a telling review all by itself. Infinite and The Old You” are lovely ballads that deserve a life apart from the production.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Kinnane has charisma to spare as Marc, and perfectly embodies a teenager abruptly thrown into the spotlight and handed enormous responsibility to represent his community. He has the vocal range and power to carry the lead role, but also blends perfectly in a duet with Dolan as Marc’s boyfriend Jason. McMillan was a standout in last season’s Mary and Max at Theatre Calgary, and has a chance here to sink her teeth into a more complex character. Carly is bold and independent, but vulnerable at the same time, and McMillan’s performance balances both aspects seamlessly. It takes nothing away from the skill of the other performers, however, to say that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of Thom Allison when he is on stage. The character of Lonnie Wynn is a larger-than-life personality, and Allison is perfectly cast. His powerful voice and infectious energy make Wynn a magnet for the attention in every scene.
This show has a colourful history — its seeds were sown in a TV movie in 2004, scripted by Staines. It became a musical titled Prom Queen: The Musical (thank heavens someone opted to change that) in 2014, and this new staging is helmed by director Lonny Price, who has an impressive Broadway and West End pedigree that is very evident here. Every facet of the production is kicked up a notch in this incarnation, including the set (James Noone), which is evocative of a church, with Gothic arches on the upper levels, as well as a prison, with bars on the lower level. There is a fire pole centre stage which sees limited use, but is an interesting graphic element nonetheless. The new choreography by Rebecca Howell has the flair that you would expect from a Broadway staging, but embodies the naive energy of the teenagers and is carefully tailored to each character.
The rear projections from the most recent restyling of A Christmas Carol are used again here, but it’s more of a bug than a feature, because in most cases, the set obscures the projections and renders them annoying when they are used for anything other than background ambience. Obviously that’s a minor flaw, however, in what is otherwise enormous fun to watch. This show will undoubtedly have a touring life after Calgary, and you will want to get in on the action while it’s here.
(Photo of Thom Allison, centre, and the cast of The Louder We Get courtesy Trudie Lee.)
The Louder We Get runs in the Max Bell Theatre until Feb. 22. For tickets and showtimes please to to theatre https://www.theatrecalgary.com.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.