Pentacle’s latest musical “The Prom” celebrates love, acceptance

The high school prom experience isn’t always picture perfect, and for some people working on the Pentacle’s newest musical, “The Prom,” it never happened.

It’s something that longtime Salem director Robert Salberg learned about during production.

“I’ve actually talked to lots of people who either didn’t go to their prom or want a prom redo, or feel like their prom wasn’t what it was supposed to be for whatever reason,” he said. “So, that’s interesting to me because so often, the mystique around prom is like, it’s this event that is perfect. And oftentimes that (idea) is manufactured by their parents.”

The expectations and hopes around prom, and the parental interventions between teens and their happiness, is a key part of the story of “The Prom,” which opens Friday, March 1, at Salem’s Pentacle Theatre. Shows run through March 23. 

Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets range from $22 to $50 and students and Oregon Trail Card holders are eligible for a 50% discount. The theater is located at 324 52nd Ave.

The play has over 400 costume pieces, a large cast of 30 including local teens and a revolving set showing 17 different locations. It has a witty dialogue packed with jokes and poignancy, Salberg said.

In the play, four Broadway stars desperate for good publicity decide to support a small town high schooler’s effort to take her girlfriend to the prom, fighting against pressure from local parents.

Beyond the two leads and the adult characters, the ensemble cast is played by actual high school students.

“That was probably my biggest worry: was I going to have a bunch of John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John aged people from Grease playing all these quote-on-quote high school kids,” Salberg said, referring to the infamous casting decisions of the 1978 movie. “That was one of my main goals, and I feel like that’s been achieved.”

The cast of the Pentacle’s March 2024 musical, “The Prom” (Courtesy/ Vicki Woods)

Salberg, who teaches middle school health and drama classes at Howard Street Charter School, first saw “The Prom” about five years ago during a school trip to Broadway in New York.

His students were very excited to see it, but he recalled wondering if the premise was outdated given that same-sex marriage was now legal. He left the show impressed by its story, songs and approach to the topic.

As an educator, he said he appreciated that the principal and staff in the play were on the students’ side, which felt more realistic.

“If a school is doing their job, they’re doing what they think is in the best interest of kids. And that’s not always told very well through Hollywood’s lens,” he said.

Salberg said the identity politics around LGBTQ rights feel even more topical now than when he first saw the play, which helped change his mind about its relevance. He said a story about a lesbian couple wanting to go to prom could easily be repurposed into a story about a transgender athlete wanting to play sports, or a student who has same-sex parents.

“Ultimately, the story is really about bullying,” he said.

He said his goal with the production isn’t to change anyone’s minds, but to provide an opportunity for the audience to become more informed about other people’s life experiences.

“Telling a story from the perspective of a high school student is universally relatable because we’ve all been to high school and we all understand how hard high school is,” he said.

He said prom, especially, is a special memory for a lot of people and a time when kids from all social groups come together.

For those who missed out, the Pentacle’s lobby is decorated like a school dance throughout the run of the play. The production is also having its own prom-themed afterparty, Salberg said.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.