3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for thematic elements and suggestive/sexual candor
It’s easy to see why director Ryan Murphy was attracted to this Tony-nominated stage musical; it’s basically a double-length episode of his hit TV series, Glee.
On steroids. With an A-list cast.
|Having decided to save a small Indiana town from itself, our four Broadway stars — from
left, Trent (Andrew Rannells), Barry (James Corden), Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and
Angie (Nicole Kidman) — salute themselves in song.
The Prom — a Netflix original — boldly blends serious social commentary with frivolous Broadway razzmatazz, and gets away with it because the Bob Martin/Chad Beuelin script cheekily acknowledges as much.
“This is how actors intervene,” proclaim the lyrics in one of the many patter tunes, “through fiery songs and dance breaks!”
Indeed, Beguilin’s lyrics — he co-created the stage musical, with Martin’s book and Matthew Sklar’s music — are wickedly clever, with snarky messaging, insider jokes and tongue-twistingly inventive rhymes that even Tom Lehrer would admire.
Assign this material to scene-stealing talents such as Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells, and the result — while a bit bloated, at 130 minutes — is a lot of fun.
The story kicks off during the opening night production of Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, a wildly expensive and thematically ill-advised musical featuring New York stage stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden). The post-opening party turns into a disaster when reviews crucify the show, effectively flat-lining their careers.
While commiserating with career chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Kidman) — who has just quit her 20-year job in the musical Chicago, after once again losing the plum role of Roxie Hart, this time to Tina-Louise (very late of Gilligan’s Island, and still with us) — they decide that salvation lies is attaching their star status to some sort of noble cause, thereby reaping the benefit of flattering publicity.
Trouble is, Dee Dee and Barry are unapologetic narcissists — and even admit as much, in song — and therefore embrace this notion for all the wrong reasons.
Meanwhile, in small-town Edgewater, Indiana, the local PTA — led by the imperious and bigoted Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) — has cancelled the annual high school prom, because it’s the only legal way to prevent Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) from attending with her girlfriend. This has turned poor Emma into a public pariah, despite the best efforts of her one ally, Principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key).
Emma and Principal Hawkins plea for tolerance and acceptance, pointing out that Mrs. Greene’s judgmental and repressive views aren’t aligned with American values.
“This isn’t America,” she snaps back. “This is Indiana.”
(A great line, delivered by Washington with sublime waspishness.)
Back in New York, Dee Dee smells opportunity: There’s our cause. Nobody has enough cash to fund a trip to Indiana, so they accept an offer from young actor Trent Oliver (Rannells), who has just been cast in a touring production of Godspell. Dee Dee, Barry and Angie therefore “slum” by joining this gang on the bus.
Their arrival in Edgewater is a disruptive disaster, with brash, ostentatiously snooty Big Apple conduct immediately clashing with quieter, conservative Hoosier state behavior. (“I understand furious townsfolk,” Dee Dee stubbornly insists, in song. “I did Beauty and the Beast.”)
Trent, in turn, blames the problem on Edgewater High School’s lack of a drama department, thereby depriving students of a chance to learn empathy.
Both sides take plenty of well-aimed hits, with the New York interlopers coming off much worse … because they aren’t actually well-intentioned, but merely opportunistic.
Even so, Emma is genuinely touched by the effort, and Pellman’s sweetly poignant performance is this film’s heart. It’s her feature film debut, following some minor TV appearances, and she certainly makes the most of it. Amid the often distracting antics of her older co-stars, she makes Emma grounded, completely sincere and comfortable in her own skin … despite having been thrown out of the house by her parents at age 16, and subsequently sheltered by her loving grandmother (Mary Kay Place).
Emma also is head-over-heels in love with her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose); the two share a poignant ballad, “Dance with You,” delivered with heartfelt sincerity by both actresses.
Pellman is equally adept at the more vibrant power ballads, but she — and everybody else — are blown out of the water by Streep’s sell-it-to-the-last-row-of-the-second-balcony belting. We’ve known she can sing since 2008’s Mamma Mia!, but she’s flat-out astonishing here, adding tremendous brio to the often tongue-twisting lyrics.
As always, Streep also amazes with the emotional impact she puts into tiny gestures, sidelong glances and double-takes.
Rannells is similarly vivacious — and quite athletic — during Trent’s featured number, “Love Thy Neighbor.”
Corden leans toward the Rex Harrison speak-sing approach, which is fine; at first blush, Barry is a stereotypical “theater gay,” with a mildly mincing gait and a talent for wardrobe and accessorizing. But Corden reveals additional layers as the story proceeds, and Barry becomes a more credible character with his own vulnerable side.
Kidman’s Angie is the quartet’s quieter member: more perceptive and attuned to their outsized influence in these surroundings. She also tries for genuine friendship with Emma, in contrast to Dee Dee’s superficial fluttering; Kidman and Pellman share several nice scenes that feel warm and real.
Alas, Kidman is the cast’s weak link when it comes to singing; she has the sultry moves for the Bob Fosse-influenced song “Zazz,” but not the vocal chops.
Key’s Principal Hawkins is a pivotal role; he must navigate Dee Dee’s aggressive shallowness, despite his fondness for her (as a longtime Broadway fan). Hawkins is saddled with the story’s most crucial lecture — not delivered in song — and Key handles it persuasively.
Logan Riley, Sofia Deler, Nico Greetham and Nathaniel J. Potvin are effectively cruel and spiteful as “mean kids” Kaylee, Shelby, Nick and Kevin: Emma’s primary peer adversaries.
Murphy hasn’t lost his touch for inventive staging, and choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps everybody active. Several members of the Godspell ensemble — who double, at times, as Edgewater High students — are stunning.
Every time you think this is going to be just gaudy and frivolous, the story hits us with a nasty, real-worldish surprise: most notably the breath-catching shock that concludes the first act. Later, if Murphy ladles the climactic sentiment and inclusiveness message with a trowel, during Pellman’s sweet solo song, that’s nothing new; he constantly did the same on Glee. (And, frankly, the message never grows old, because it’s still relevant.)
The Prom must’ve been a blast, live on stage, and this film translation definitely retains the show’s heart and pizzazz. It’s a hoot.