The songs are unmemorable in a samey-samey, upbeat way. The acting is campy and the message of the musical is obvious and secondhand — so why did I enjoy The Prom well enough? Blame it on 2020. The Netflix offering, based on the show that began at the Alliance Theatre in 2016 before moving to Broadway (it ran for more than nine months before closing in August 2019), is just a lightweight nothing that, honestly, you’ll forget the moment the credits start to roll. It dropped today.
For a story line so thin, the musical sports a cast starrier than it merits. Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells play out-of-work Broadway actors who seek validation and easy publicity by finding a headline-worthy cause — and pouncing on it, hard. They pinpoint one in the news of a 17-year-old Indiana student named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose plan to take her unnamed girlfriend to the prom causes the PTA, led by the sanctimonious Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), to cancel the event.
If you guess that Emma’s secret girlfriend is Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose), Mrs. Greene’s daughter, you’ll be ahead of a plot that doesn’t much credit your intelligence.
Awash in neon colors that cue you in that reality will not be even a minor distraction, The Prom follows the quartet of razzle-dazzle Manhattan windbags on a Godspell tour bus down to Indiana. There they find that their soundbite-seeking campaign and self-regard don’t play so well — even if the school’s principal (Keegan-Michael Key) is an avid Broadway fan who adores Streep’s Patti LuPone-like diva.
Both the Broadway stars and the faculty and students must learn big Life Lessons about selflessness and tolerance. Director Ryan Murphy, the producer–director juggernaut of Netflix these days, can’t really make any of the would-be “emotional” moments stick. Plus, there’s something a little questionable about having Corden, a straight man in real life, play a nelly gay actor with tearful tales of being disowned by his parents. Murphy helped produce the recent Boys in the Band remake, featuring an all-gay cast, so he knows he has a few other acting options.
Continuing on her I-can-do-whatever-I-want-now-because-I-earned-it Mamma Mia! trajectory, Streep is obviously having a blast. Kidman and Rannells, who have both been on Broadway, are decent company and do their best to punch up their scenes and songs. The Prom also brings on Tracey Ullman and Mary Kay Place for quick cameos.
As Emma, newcomer Pellman is so fresh of face and singing voice that it’s hard to imagine her needing any sort of rescue over the whole prom ordeal. You get a sense she’ll be fine, whatever happens.
You will be, too, if you watch The Prom, which at best resembles a shinier version of Murphy’s Glee in the last few seasons when it went entirely off the rails. Consider yourself warned. But you can add watching it to the list of guilty pleasures that 2020 has made longer than usual for many of us.
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