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BWW Review: THE PROM is an Uplifting, Feel-Good Musical Comedy

The joyous, technicolor celebration of living authentically tugs all the right heartstrings while tickling every funny bone.

BWW Review: THE PROM is an Uplifting, Feel-Good Musical Comedy

I approached Ryan Murphy's film adaptation of THE PROM, expertly crafted for the stage by writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar, with a lot of trepidation. The moment the casting was announced, I feared the focus would be on drawing viewers and shooting for award nominations with little concern for the overall quality of the project. Fortunately, most of my fears were misplaced and the final product is a joyous, technicolor celebration of living authentically that tugs all the right heartstrings while tickling every funny bone.

From the first vibrantly hued and highly saturated camera pan over a PTA meeting to the final dazzling, confetti soaked shots of a prom for everyone, there is absolutely no question that THE PROM is large-scale Hollywood musical. Helming the project as Director and a producer, Ryan Murphy captures the engaging ebullience of the original Broadway production and folds in all the glitz and pizzaz the film medium can offer to make this version of THE PROM a kaleidoscope of color, sequins, glitter, and more.

BWW Review: THE PROM is an Uplifting, Feel-Good Musical Comedy
Jo Ellen Pellman & Ariana DeBose.
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix © 2020.

Making her feature film debut, Jo Ellen Pellman is amiably captivating as Emma Nolan, the young lesbian whose simple request to take her girlfriend as her date to prom caused her high school's PTA to cancel prom for everyone. The openly queer actress plumbs the depths of her character, ensuring all viewers who have ever felt like they were an outsider looking in can relate to her Emma. Pellman's voice radiates with earnest tenderness and youthful hope from her first solo "Just Breathe" through the film's finale, "It's Time to Dance." And, just like Caitlin Kinnunen did on Broadway, Pellman infuses the quiet anthem "Unruly Heart" with such subtly and heartfelt emotion that the number resonates with honesty while also being a star-making moment. The only complaint I have about Pellman's Emma is that she seems to trust the meddling New Yorkers instantly, without the slightest bit of hesitancy.

BWW Review: THE PROM is an Uplifting, Feel-Good Musical Comedy
(L to R) Andrew Rannells, Kerry Washington,
Meryl Streep, Jo Ellen Pellman
& James Corden.
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix © 2020.

Taking on the role of Dee Dee Allen, Meryl Streep is sublime. Beth Leavel's indelible Broadway performance made me wonder if Streep was truly up for the challenge of the grandiose belting written into the score for her character. All around, her performance strikes a different chord than Leavel's did, but Streep is hilarious and enchanting as the narcissistic celebrity activist whose "tiny blueberry heart" grows over the course of the film. Streep's renditions of "It's Not About Me" and "The Lady's Improving" are delightful showstoppers in the film. In these moments, and others, she dazzles audiences with her decadent belt and her remarkably expressive face, all while nailing Casey Nicholaw's showy choreography.

BWW Review: THE PROM is an Uplifting, Feel-Good Musical Comedy
Meryl Streep & James Corden.
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix © 2020.

Much debate rages over the casting of James Corden, a straight actor, playing the effervescing Barry Glickman, a role originated with aplomb by Brooks Ashmanskas. To be frank, Corden is fabulous in this film. He flits, lisps, and twirls with abandon, playing into the long standing archetype of gay male representation on film. The portrayal definitely lacks subtly, yet feels less cliched than and even toned down from what Ashmanskas did on Broadway. Where the biggest change comes in for the film is that Corden's scenery chewing performance doesn't climax with his bubbly rendition of "Barry Is Going to Prom." Instead, in adapting their musical book to a film script, Beguelin and Martin have reworked the musical's second act to flesh out backstories for both Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman. This gives Corden moments where he confronts the spectre of his past, including being pushed out of his family home as a teenager, by confronting his mother. These moments feel forced because they seemingly lack legitimacy and queer authenticity. However, I don't think the weight of that rests fully on Corden's shoulders. Murphy's direction for Corden keeps Corden's Barry enshrined in gay stereotype, even as tears stream down his face and he flails his arms to wag his finger at his mother. Likewise, Beguelin and Martin reject any sense of nuance in their writing of these moments and fail to adequately parallel them to the backstory of Emma and her family or use them as a cautionary foreshadowing for when Alyssa, Emma's girlfriend, will eventually come out to her mother.

Nicole Kidman sparkles as Angie Dickinson, the good-intentioned chorus girl with a heart of gold. She deftly hits all the visual cues of Fosse during her feature number, "Zazz." As the embattled principal Tom Hawkins, Keegan-Michael Key charms the audience and Streep's Dee Dee with ease. His vocals are in great form on the sentimental ballad "We Look to You," which feels ridiculously poignant in 2020 as many Broadway fans eagerly await the reopening of NYC's theaters. Andrew Rannells' deadpan-lite wit never ceases to entertain in his portrayal of Trent Oliver. He effortlessly beguiles as he hoofs his way through a suburban American mall in his spectacle-laden, scene stealing number, "Love Thy Neighbor." It's impossible not to love Ariana DeBose's conflicted but perfectly poised Alyssa Greene. DeBose, a queer biracial actress, compassionately infuses her role with such depth and honesty that moments like her solo, "Alyssa Greene," resonate with soul touching purity. Then, as the film's antagonist, Kerry Washington is wonderfully foreboding but real as Mrs. Greene, which ensures audiences are able to empathize with her misguided decisions and champion her character's changes.

Visually appealing and emotionally effective, THE PROM is a near perfect adaptation of a musical from stage to screen. The charismatic cast all deliver memorable and highly enjoyable performances that easily entice viewers and hold our attention. Matthew Libatique's cinematography never lets audiences forget that they're watching a musical, and he even lets the film feel like it's being viewed on a stage from time to time while also incorporating clever nods to the original Broadway staging. The revisions incorporated for the film all flow well, even if they do feel a little heavy handed in the back half of the film. Ultimately, THE PROM is an uplifting, feel-good musical comedy that is a true treat to watch.

THE PROM will be available for streaming on Friday, December 11, exclusively on Netflix.

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From This Author David Clarke