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BWW Album Review: THE PROM Has an Unruly Heart and Uneven Performances

While some stars soar, others falter.

BWW Album Review: THE PROM Has an Unruly Heart and Uneven Performances

2020 was supposed to be a massive year for movie musicals, but in the end, only one of the year's planned major releases actually made it: Netflix's splashy, star-studded adaptation of The Prom. The movie's soundtrack is largely a well-made version of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin's score, although it occasionally seems to prioritize glitz and polish over the scrappy joys of its stage predecessor.

Of the adult cast, the women fare much better than the men throughout pretty much the entire album. Sometime in the past decade, Meryl Streep became one of Hollywood's unexpected go-to actresses for fabulous, broad female musical characters of a certain generation, and she's totally delightful here as narcissistic actress Dee Dee. Streep's performance of "The Lady's Improving" is a no-holds-barred, wonderfully over-the-top number, and you can hear in every note how much fun she's having. The joy is genuinely infectious.

Nicole Kidman doesn't get to chew the scenery quite as much, but her character's signature song, "Zazz," reminds us that she's one of the more underrated musical actresses in Hollywood right now. Sure, it's more of a light, jazz-hands crowd-pleaser than her angsty showstoppers from her Moulin Rouge days, but she gives it great energy and just the right level of sly sass. It's one of several numbers, though, that feels just a little too polished; part of the joy of the original Broadway version was its scrappy, inside-Broadway feel, but the Netflix version seems to prize the overly-glossy feel and sound of Hollywood rather than emphasizing what made the musical so charming.

On the other side, their male co-stars don't come off quite as well. Andrew Rannells is in fine, chipper form on the deliberately over-the-top "lesson" anthems "The Acceptance Song" and "Love Thy Neighbor." Unfortunately, the peppy, poppy style of the songs, paired with Rannells's distinctive voice, winds up making the numbers sound like songs from a Book of Mormon sequel; it's impossible not to imagine Elder Price singing cheerily about "an eternity in the fiery pits of hell." There's nothing wrong with the performance; it's simply a bit distracting and forces Rannells into something of a pigeonhole.

It's James Corden, however, who winds up being the real low point of the album. All the heart of the character is sucked out, turning what should be a charming and layered performance into a stereotyped, two-dimensional voice. Corden is, arguably, one of the most famous musical theater geeks in mainstream American culture, thanks to his late-night career, but here, it seems as if he's forgotten everything that makes musicals special and instead is turning in the kind of performance that would get cut from a late-night writers' room for being too derivative. It's a pity, but it's the truth.

Despite the unevenness of the adult cast, the two women at the real center of the story are more than up for the challenge. Both Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose are exceptional, both vocally and in character work. Pellman starts off strong with "Just Breathe," capturing Emma's wit, heart, and fears all at once, and her version of "Tonight Belongs to You (Reprise)" will break your heart, and "Unruly Heart" is the kind of performance every leading lady dreams of. Similarly, DeBose breathes life into the complicated, hesitant "Alyssa Greene."

Equally, the pair's duets on "Dance with You" and "You Happened" are earnest and touching. A common critique of The Prom in general is that it's at its best when it focuses on its younger characters, and, after listening to the movie adaptation's soundtrack, I can't help but agree wholeheartedly.

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