The OI Review: Awesome 80s Prom

Review by Jason Wert

I graduated from high school in 1989 so my actual senior prom was in 1989, the same year as the Awesome 80s Prom, the new show from Springfield Little Theatre that opens tomorrow at the Old Glass Place.

I can safely say that my real life prom had much less colorful characters…and was at least 75% less fun than the “prom” I attended tonight at Wanaget High. Tonight, I had some of the most fun I’ve had in my life in years.

The Awesome 80s Prom is immersive theater, meaning that unlike “traditional” theater shows, the audience is part of the show. The cast will come around to your table and interact with you. There are scripted parts of the show that take place on a stage, but the majority of the night will be you interacting with the characters.

And dancing. They’ll pull you from your seat and have you dancing.

You might get selected for one of the written sketches where…well…let’s just say I hope you have a good sense of humor and just go with the fun.

Oh, and the characters will offer you “pot” and “booze”. At least, they did to me, which I’m guessing the characters just assumed because I was there in a 1980s era Rush T-shirt that it meant I was one of the outcast druggie rock and roll kids into the substances that drove the principal crazy. 😉 (The real 1989 me DID wear Rush t-shirts…in fact, I had a shirt identical to the one I wore tonight…but without the booze and drugs.)

When the DJ broke out the Buster Poindexter, it was a conga line with almost the entire cast and most of the audience

That was a major part of the fun. Several audience members came in costume or wearing some kind of 80s gear to go with the flow. They were greeted in the lobby by some of the characters ushering them to take an awkward prom photo (which being alone I was able to avoid, thank God. My mother already has enough awkward prom pictures of me.)

When you enter the “prom”…and it really did look a lot like my prom from 1989…you’ll be seated at a table of eight. You’ll be offered finger foods and non-spiked punch. (There’s adult beverages and the classic spiked punch available at the bar in the lobby.)

Once the “audience” is seated, the fun really begins.

Over the course of the next few hours, you’ll have an over-the-top DJ spinning some of the best tunes of the 80s in between scripted vignettes. The opening segment has a character introducing the “adults” in the room (teachers/chaperones) and then the “kids” get their turn when they nominate several characters for prom king and queen.

And yes, as you might expect, the nominees fit the stereotypes for 80s characters that you know and love from every John Hughes movie. The jock, the nerd, the preppy kid, the crazy male foreign exchange student, the over-sexualized female exchange student, etc. If you can think of an 80s trope, it’ll be in this show.

But here’s where this show goes from a great concept to one of the best times I’ve ever had going to a theater production. The cast for this show tonight was one of the tightest, focused, extremely well casted groups I’ve seen. In a show like this where the characters are so central to the overall enjoyment of the audience, the casting had to be dead on and the performances have to match the trope set upon them.

You see, with immersive theater, you have to bring a cast that is heavily skilled in improvisation because they don’t know what the audience is going to say or do with them when they’re walking around the prom. I’ve done improv comedy in the past and I know how hard it is when you get one suggestion from an audience member for a scene; I can’t imagine the complexity these actors had to deal with tonight in interacting with 50 or so people over two hours.

I didn’t encounter one actor who broke character once during the show.

Not. Once.

That in itself tells you the high-power caliber of acting in this cast; I should have known a cast that included someone like Sarah Jenkins (ex-Skinny Improv, the Mystery Hour, top-flight local improv comic) would have their minds right for this kind of production.

I could honestly pull out any of the individual cast members for recognition because of their performances but there were a few that as I was driving home and contemplating this review kept coming to my mind.

Alexandra Saner as Kerrie Kowalski. Kerrie was the nerdy girl who had the crush on the football hero. What impressed me with her performance was that she didn’t play the character strictly as the stereotyped “obsessed geek”. The way she interacted showed a girl with a truly sweet spirit and actual interest in other people that ALSO had a major crush on the football star. There was a real depth to the performance that I honestly didn’t expect and found myself continuing coming back to as the high point of the night’s performances.

Lysander Abadia as “Feung Schwey”, the crazy foreign exchange student in the mold of the Long Duk Dong character from the John Hughes classic “Sixteen Candles.” Abadia played the role with a truly fearless abandon that you need in a part like that; he hit that level of manic nirvana that took the character from stock to vital.

Inga needed Lewis to help tie her shoe.

Katie Tonarely as Inga Swanson, the Swedish exchange student. Wow. I’ll be honest…I kind of felt awkward a few times (in a good way) because of how much Katie inhabited the role of the sexually charged exchange student. Like Abadia’s performance, she really brought a fearlessness to how she inhabited the role with a very wicked comedic edge. Her comic timing to drop the more adult-oriented jokes or lines from her character was perfectly done.

Megan Buchbinder hit the mark as the top mean girl and head cheerleader Whitley Whitaker. She interacted with the audience with just enough snark to have the mean girl edge but not so over the top that you really dislike the character. I also noticed that when she was dancing or interacting with the other cast in ways that weren’t center of attention her body language and movements were consistent with what you’d expect from her character. She danced like you’d expect the head cheerleader with attitude to dance.

There were so many other cast members that turned in great performances…Daniel Walley, Kayleen Speer, Zoe Zelonky, Shannon Sherrow, Todd Smith, Tonya Cunningham, the previously mentioned Sarah Jenkins. I can think of something from each character in the cast that stuck with me.

Now, there was one thing out of the entire night that bothered me. It’s a small thing…but it probably bothered me because in 1989 I was in the heavy metal/punk corridors of teenage angst. The metal/punk girls who rightfully were being disdainful of everything and the poppy music of the night barely reacted when (finally) some rock played courtesy of the mighty Motley Crue. I was expecting them to react to the song with more of an “it’s about damn time!” attitude with some headbanging because A) that’s what you did in 1989 when the Crue was played and B) it would annoy all the other kids and teachers, which is one of the goals of those characters. Instead, they just stayed within their characters as if they didn’t notice the change in the music until the song was almost over.

Oh…and a quick shout out to costume designers Kris Haik and Ginny Herfkens on their outstanding work. If you ladies had put Zoe Zelonki’s Molly Parker in a peach version of the dress she wore tonight, it would have been the EXACT dress my date to my 1989 senior prom wore that night. So, at least in the design of that dress, you had 1989 NAILED.

Now, a quick caution: this is not a show for kids. Go out for a couple’s date night and leave the little ones with a sitter.

The bottom line? There are very few scripted or mostly scripted theater productions that I’ve seen in my lifetime where I would go back to see the same exact show from the same exact cast. I can count them on one hand with fingers left over.

I want to see and experience the Awesome 80s Prom again with this exact same cast. I want another round of the perfection they brought to this show.

(The Awesome 80s Prom presented by Springfield Little Theatre has shows Thursday February 14, Friday February 15 and Saturday February 16 then again the following week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available through their website.)