Director Ryan Murphy returns to familiar territory with “The Prom,” a high school musical adapted from a Broadway show now streaming on Netflix. The creator of the pop culture juggernaut “Glee” throws subtlety out the window and ups the ante with an all-star cast to bring the all-singing-all-dancing story of inclusivity to glittery life.
The action begins on the opening night of a Broadway show, a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt starring two self-involved stage icons, Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden). When terrible reviews force the show to close on opening night, taking their dreams of Tony Award glory with it, they fear they’ll never work again. Joining in on the pity part are
Trent (Andrew Rannells), a Juilliard grad waiting on his big break by bartending at Sardi’s restaurant and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), a “Chicago” chorus girl who has spent twenty years for her chance of playing Roxie.
At the same time across the country in small-town Indiana controversy in brewing. Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), head of the local PTA, has announced that to preserve community standards, gay high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) will be banned from attending the prom with her girlfriend.
Cut to New York where the four actors hatch a plan to find a cause they can support to boost their dented public images. When they hear about Emma’s plight, the self-proclaimed “liberals from Broadway” hop on a bus for Indiana to bring their self-styled (and self-serving) activism to the Midwest.
High jinks and high stepping result.
“The Prom” is a feel-good movie that not only celebrates inclusivity but also the form of the musical. It’s an ode to Broadway and, in these isolated times, the importance of entertaining people. When Dee Dee tells high school principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) she’s planning to quit the business, he says, earnestly, “You can’t quit because I need you to do what you do.” It’s a lovely sentiment but it makes the clumsy handling of many of the musical numbers somewhat mystifying. If this form is so important, why are the big dance sequences such a mish mash of frenetic camera work, candy colors and flailing choreography? There is a difference between dazzling and dizzying and Murphy errs on the side of the latter too often.
Other than that, “The Prom” fits alongside pop musicals like “Bye Bye Birdie,” another show about actors trying to wring some publicity out of a small town. It’s peppy with a game cast. Streep, Rannells and Kidman have fun in big performances and Corden goes for it, but made me wonder if Nathan Lane, who would have been terrific, or Brooks Ashmanskas, who played Glickman on Broadway, were otherwise engaged while the movie was being shot.
The film’s heart and soul, however, is Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma, the gay high school senior who displays resilience and courage in the face of prejudice. She’s terrific in a role that requires her to sing, dance while pulling on your heartstrings.
If you are someone who has the release date of “West Side Story,” which features Pellman’s co-star Ariana DeBose as Anita, marked on your calendar, or if the words “Meryl Streep raps” grab your attention, then you’ll want to put “The Prom” in your Netflix queue. It aims to please fans of the genre and delivers a blast of feel-good vibes but probably won’t win over people who don’t like it when actors suddenly burst into song.