Review: Ryan Murphy's 'The Prom' a glitzy, feel good, musical that's hard to resist
Courtesy of Netflix
With a cast like James Corden, Meryl Streep, Andrew Rannells, Nicole Kidman, and Keegan-Michael Key, it’s easy to see where “The Prom” could go wrong. Helmed by Ryan Murphy, whose inconsistent track record of eccentric television dramas and comedies made this movie musical far from a sure thing, this stylish venture ends up feeling like the perfect marriage of artist and material.
Based on the stage musical by Bob Martin, Chad Beguilin, and songs by Beguilin and Matthew Sklar, “The Prom” - which premiered on Broadway in October 2019 - allows Murphy the canvas to relish in his flashy musical gravitas without cheapening the narrative. Numbers are populated with the right amount of colorful zest, outlandish set pieces, and pristine choreography to closely replicate the live theatre experience.
It’s still Ryan Murphy and anyone that grew up watching “Glee” (guilty as charged) and didn’t see “The Prom” during its short theatrical run might get whiplash. Sure, the glitzy musical is a welcome addition this holiday season and Murphy thrives on sensory overload, and underwritten characters, but the message of intolerance is perfect for grandstand musical sequences even when the autotune becomes cringeworthy.
For the main character, Murphy plucked newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman to play Emma, a high schooler in Edgewater, Indiana where the local Parent Teachers Association (headed by a persnickety Kerry Washington) has banned the teen from bringing her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom. I kept thinking to myself how in the age of social media this type of news story would flood Twitter and generate a wave of enthusiasm online. How could one town be so bigoted and discriminate against one of their own? But the bigger scope of “The Prom” - aside from “Loving thy Neighbor!” - is how that message of intolerance, no matter where it comes from, exists in pockets of the country and we don’t even know it.
But Emma’s story catches the attention of three-time Tony award winning actress Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep); Barry Glickman (James Corden) her confident and co-star of the new musical “Eleanor!;'' Trent (Andrew Rannells) a popular sitcom actor in between gigs; and Angie (Nicole Kidman) whose just quit “Chicago '' because after playing in the chorus for 20 years, the producers wouldn’t cast her as Roxie Hart. (Side bar: Kidman would make a GREAT Roxie Hart).
After a scathing review from The New York Times, these performers are looking for a glowing PR stunt and social cause to make them relevant. Following a fizzy opening number titled “Changing Lives,” that seems to poke fun at both Broadway and musicals, this quartet of performers decide to hop on the “Godspell” regional tour bus and head to Indiana where they plan an elaborate campaign for Emma to get the prom she deserves.
The B-list celebrities are shocked at the livelihood of backwoods Indiana. Not only do they have to stay in rusty motels, they’re forced to eat at Big Boys and Applebee’s and ride around in pickup trucks where the fanciest clothing store is Kmart. We’ve seen this fish-out-of-water premise numerous times, and it’s complete here with Dee Dee and Barry flaunting their theater award trophies for special treatment. What’s worse is these folks couldn’t care less about the cause they’re supposedly fighting for.
But Dee Dee and her crew march into the school meeting anyway, where Streep commands the screen singing “It’s Not About Me,” a song that’s so perfectly campy and elaborately staged, only Ryan Murphy could pull it off. This is the most physical I’ve seen Streep since “Mamma Mia!” and despite your reservations about that jukebox musical, she managed to give it some spunk. Dee Dee, with her diva and selfish instincts, is the kind of whacked out persona Streep can breathe life into. Especially when Tom Hawke (Keegan-Michael Key), the devilishly handsome school principal, turns out to be a major fan of hers. Dee Dee loves being lusted after and can’t even go into a gay bar because “she will be mobbed!”
Like “High School Musical,” or “Glee,” and even “Mamma Mia” - there’s a level of cheesiness one has to expect in movie musicals. Murphy, working with cinematography Matthew Libatique, gives the film a polished visual aesthetic that pops with vibrant colors and a wealth of witty one liners. My favorite sequence being the show-stopping ballad “Love Thy Neighbor” where Trent (rocking his Juilliard shirt he loves to brag about) sings to a batch of snarky teenagers who ousted Emma for being a lesbian. The song evolves from a small, food court romp into a full blown, catchy tune of intolerance that ends up taking over the entire mall. Broadway vet Rannells steals the movie on several occasions, and this infectious tune could have been picked from a PG13 version of “The Book of Mormon.”
Corden might garner flack for playing Barry as the obligatory gay stereotype, but he digs into the character in a way that’s not disrespectful and generates honest emotions. Likewise for Streep and Key who, ironically enough, have a palatable chemistry that reads well on screen. Kidman, in all her 5’11 glory, gets one big musical number: the Fosse-inspired “Zazz” which she crushes (though I wish there was more for the actress to do).
But it’s Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose who are the glue that binds this film together, as “The Prom” is about their journey of acceptance and combating bigotry. While basic rights - which are given to other high school students - is always a must (like attending the dance, kissing and holding hands for the world to see) having the ability to love who you want and not feel guilty transcends the musical barrier. “The Prom” is far from a perfect movie musical, but it's one which embraces campiness with a wink to the camera and wraps the viewer up in a glamorous package that’s trailblazing symbolism is hard to resist.
THE PROM opens in select theaters Friday, December 4th and streams on Netflix Friday, December 11th.