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‘The Prom’ dances its way from stage to screen

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We’ve seen a steady stream of movies converted into Broadway musicals in recent years to no small success. And there’s been plenty of transitioning in the other direction – the path from stage to screen has been well-traveled.

Converting musicals into movies is an interesting process. You never know if the filmmakers are going to be able to capture the essence of a musical – its spirit. Finding the right ways to convert the visceral nature of live performance onto film is always a crapshoot – one where sometimes you get “West Side Story,” sometimes you get “Cats.”

“The Prom” – currently streaming on Netflix – is the kind of movie that could be deemed nearer the former or the latter, depending on who you ask. Directed by Ryan Murphy and adapted to the screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin from their and Matthew Sklar’s 2018 musical of the same name, it’s a brightly-colored and broad (and dated) look at LGBTQ inclusivity and celebrity activism.

“The Prom” is driven by high-energy performances, delightful production numbers and some songs that are catchy as hell, all in service of what is ultimately intended to be a very sweet love story. Oh, and the cast is dynamite. While it has its clunky and/or heavy-handed moments and occasional missteps, it is by and large a fun and (mostly) funny take on what it means to want to help versus actually stepping up and helping.

Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman in her feature debut) is a 17-year-old girl living in the small town of Edgewater, Indiana. She has become the center of a cultural maelstrom thanks to the fact that she a) is gay, and b) wants to bring her girlfriend to the prom. Many of the town’s parents – particularly PTA president Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington, TV’s “Little Fires Everywhere”) – are up in arms at the very idea. Despite the advocacy of principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”), the PTA votes to eliminate the prom rather than let Emma bring a same-sex date, leaving her a pariah among her peers.

At the same time, a new Broadway musical – the story of Eleanor Roosevelt – has just opened to scathing reviews. The stars – aging diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep, “Let Them All Talk”) as Eleanor, flamboyant stage vet Barry Glickman (James Corden, “Superintelligence”) as FDR – are left to contemplate their looming obsolescence, drinking at the bar with between-gigs Julliard grad Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells, “The Stand In”) and career chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman, TV’s “The Undoing”). They decide to take up a cause – not a big one, a manageable one – and when Angie sees Emma’s story trending on Twitter, the decision is made.

This cavorting quartet – joined by publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Kevin Chamberlin, “Trouble”) and a non-union touring company of “Godspell” – make their way to Edgewater in an effort to insert themselves into the controversy surrounding Emma. Ostensibly, they’re there to help, but their true goal is simply to get the spotlight shined on them in a more positive manner.

Upon their arrival, however, they are shocked to discover that their presence isn’t necessarily welcomed by the people of the town, folks who simply aren’t interested in the over-the-top flamboyance offered up by these visitors. And it isn’t long before the antipathy starts to build and the visitors wind up doing more harm than good. Meanwhile, Emma is dealing with conflicted feelings of her own – not to mention those of her girlfriend, who may be dealing with some fear and doubts with regard to this very public outing.

Even as the visitors connect with Emma and the people close to her, they continue to get in their own way, with their own very specific ideas about the world confronted by a place that is very different from the one in which they live.

“The Prom” is a lot of fun in a lot of ways. There are some excellent songs and some first-rate production numbers. It is a brash and shiny bauble. “The Prom” is also somewhat problematic, whether we’re talking about the oddly inconsistent campiness of Corden or the relative neatness of the boxes into which certain people and events are placed (no spoilers). How one reconciles these disparate truths will likely dictate how they receive the film.

As for myself, I didn’t love Corden’s “flamboyance as affect” take on the performance; I’m not generally one to condemn a straight actor for playing a gay character, but Corden’s take feels cartoonish and stereotypical in spots. Maybe if it felt earned it would work? Regardless, there’s something jarring about it.

Still, there’s a charm to the underlying story, though one could argue that a little nuance could go a long way. That said, Ryan Murphy has never been all that interested in nuance, so neither is “The Prom” – and the bigger, bolder moments are the ones that are most effective. And as I said, the music is solid – “Love They Neighbor” in particular is a banger, thanks to a going-for-it Andrew Rannels.

The cast is stacked. Movie musical Meryl is one of my favorite Meryls; she’s clearly having a blast here. Corden, we’ve discussed. Rannells too – he’s really good throughout, breathing life into every scene in which he appears. Kidman is weirdly underused; there’s something unsettling about a movie star just kind of floating in the background for most of the film. Washington is off-putting and shrill to maximum effect. Key continues to prove to be something of a secret weapon; we just need to remember that he’s a legit triple threat. And I greatly enjoyed the newcomer Pellman, plucked from relative obscurity by Ryan Murphy to take on this role. She’s got a lovely voice and a lovely presence; I look forward to seeing what happens next for her.

“The Prom” has a lot going for it, but it also has some not insignificant strikes against it. If you go in with relatively low expectations and don’t think too hard about the specifics, you’ll have a good time. Start pulling threads, however, and it will start to unravel. Don’t anticipate a standing ovation and you should be fine.

And hey – it was better than “Cats.”

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2020 15:33

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