The Prom

★★★

Lovers of live theater hated 2020.

In New York City, Broadway has been closed since March 12 and the more than 97,000 workers were affected. It’s projected that more than a billion dollars in ticket revenue has been lost (More than $1.8 billion was sold during 2018-2019 season).

And that’s just in New York. Theaters have been closed around the country and besides some streaming options there have been very few opportunities to watch live musicals or plays.

Ryan Murphy, the powerhouse TV producer behind “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” and many, many more, has provided a joyful streaming distraction for hardcore fans of musical theater. His new feature length movie “The Prom” dropped on Netflix on Friday Dec. 11.

It’ll be a crowd pleaser for those that miss the theater. For those that are only so-so on musicals? You won’t be converted by this one.

“The Prom” is a big, bold, glitzy — at times, cheesy — musical. It doesn’t have the crossover appeal of “Hamilton.” You have to like show tunes to digest this one.

Hoosiers might be interested in this movie because of the Indiana connections. Murphy grew up in Indianapolis and attended Warren Central. His mother still lives in the Fishers/Geist area. The movie itself, based on a 2018 Broadway musical, tells the story of a Hoosier high school girl who wants to attend prom with her girlfriend but is opposed by a school board that doesn’t agree with LGBT life styles. It’s very loosely based on a true story that took place in Alabama, but this fictional version takes place in the made-up town of Edgewater, Ind. and there are quite a few shots taken at our state. In the first 20 minutes, there are multiple songs that portray Indiana as a redneck state devoid of culture. The protagonist, played by newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, sings, “Not to self: don’t be gay in Indiana” in our introduction to her character.

Struggling Broadway actors (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman) decide to descend upon the small town after seeing the girl’s story on Twitter. They plan to help out this lesbian teen in order to get some positive publicity and help their careers. The four of them sing (in one of the first songs) about, “Those fist-pumping, Bible-thumping, Spam-eating, cousin-loving, cow-tipping, shoulder-slumping, finger-wagging, Hoosier-humping losers and their homely wives. They’ll learn compassion, and better fashion, once we at last start changing lives.”

Broadway composer Matthew Sklar said he was not only inspired by the true prom incident in Alabama, but by then-Gov. Mike Pence’s RFRA fiasco in Indiana. Hence, the Hoosier setting.

The message is this movie is about as subtle as a piano falling on someone. It’s clearly preaching acceptance and denouncing homophobia but the movie itself seems to think a big song and dance number can melt hearts, transform minds and change the world. Issues that have existed forever are solved rather quickly. Characters who are cartoonish, hardline bigots are suddenly converted to full acceptance in a matter of minutes.

Far more entertaining is the message about arrogant celebrities who think what they say or do will actually change anyone’s mind. There’s some biting commentary about celebrities wading into the political pool. Personally I feel making fun of celebrities is too easy of a target, like trying to throw a water balloon at a house from five feet away. But it does garner some laughs in this broad comedy.

Much of what I’m criticizing about “The Prom” can been blamed on the original Broadway show rather than Murphy’s adaptation and his direction. Murphy does fill your TV screen with colorful dance sequences and joyful energy. At times it seems to border on excess, similar to later seasons of “Glee,” but it’s hard to hate something so insanely positive.

The one thing I might truly fault Murphy for is the casting. Meryl Streep is one of the world’s greatest actresses, but I’m getting Streep fatigue with this one. She’s great as always but that’s to be expected and she’s raised the bar so hight that I’m not sure she reaches it. She plays an aging Broadway star who has a romantic relationship with the school’s principal played by Keegan-Michael Key. The age difference is a minor issue and the chemistry between these two is really off. I didn’t really believe the romance between the two.

James Corden is definitely acting for the back row of the theater in this one. His effeminately gay Broadway actor is so over the top that you’ll see his performance in “Cats” as subtle. He does garner a few laughs with clever lines but your enjoyment of “The Prom” will rely heavily on how much you can stand Corden. If you find him to be unbearable, then you will cringe every time they put him into yet another scene in this two-hour film.

Nicole Kidman is actually decent but she’s given one of the most lazily written musical numbers with “Give Them Some Zazz,” an cheer-up song in the style of “Chicago” with lots of jazz hands.

Andrew Rannells, the Broadway powerhouse who originated the role of Elder Price in the 2011 Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” is given the least to do in this movie. In one musical number, he convinces popular teenagers to not be homophobic by delivering a not-subtle song about The Bible called “Love thy Neighbor.” It means well, but I rolled my eyes a little. It’s the kind of take that you’ve heard again and again in Internet memes. I guess we can’t hear enough a message of acceptance and love but I was kind of hoping for something more insightful.

While the big name celebrities fall a little flat, the lesser known actors really excel in “The Prom.” Pellman is excellent, as is Ariana DeBose, who will appear in Steven Spielberg’s new film adaptation of “West Side Story.” Not only are both talented singers but the composers give them more modern pop music to sing as opposed to the traditional Broadway show tunes of the four celebrities.

Kerry Washington is also pretty good as the villainous school board president.

All of the songs are well sung. There’s nobody in this movie like Ryan Gosling in “La La Land” or Russell Crowe in “Les Misérables.” Although at times the songs sound a little over produced like “The Greatest Showman” or “Glee.” More than a touch of auto-tune.

Now I know it sounds like I’m dumping all over this movie. It’s true that “The Prom” might not be my personal cup of tea but I think it succeeds in what it set out to accomplish. The movie is what it is and if you love watching Broadway musicals then you’ll have a great time watching this one.

I was one of the movie critics that didn’t really enjoy “The Greatest Showman.” If you loved that movie (or 2007’s “Hairspray” film), you’ll love this one.

“The Prom” is much better than both of those movies, but it’s an enjoyable distraction rather than an all-time great movie.

The clever and funny lyrics really hold this one together and, in the end, “The Prom” isn’t trying to be more than it is.

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