‘The Prom’ is saccharine, yet delightful, Broadway homage

Photo from The Prom TV Show

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Though a Ryan Murphy-directed movie musical wasn’t the year-end spectacle most people were hoping for, “The Prom” shouldn’t be discounted just yet: “The Prom” is whimsical in every sense of the word. From its jewel-toned, bold color schemes to the pure notion that small-town homophobia can be solved with a song and a few Broadway stars, the film’s sheer optimism cannot be denied. 

Following the failure of their latest show, Broadway veterans Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are looking for any new project that can revitalize their reputations. Enter Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian from Indiana whose prom was canceled because she wanted to bring her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). 

The two stars team up with Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and longtime chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) to bring their liberal New York spirit to her Indiana small town. Throughout the film, these self-obsessed stars learn the reward that comes with caring about something other than themselves, spreading messages of love and acceptance in the process. 

The film is undoubtedly at its best when it sticks to its Broadway roots, embracing its campy nature and admittedly ridiculous premise. Whether it be the punchy choreography, glittery wardrobe, outlandishly public dance numbers or the stage lighting that appears out of nowhere, this adaptation is never short on dramatic flair. In this sense, “The Prom” is a movie musical, and it’s not shy about it. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, and it adapts the best parts of the original show, often sharpening the dialogue and score in the process. The musical numbers lift you up and tug on your heartstrings — even if the lyricists seem to make up as many words as they can. 

As is the case with anything produced by Murphy, the cringe is intentional. “The Prom” is so horribly self-aware in its ridiculousness that one can’t be mad at the happy ending that leaves every character simultaneously forgetting their woes and engaging in a dance break. It’s wholly understandable why some viewers would be taken aback by its saccharine optimism and ludicrosity, as it, similar to any staged musical, requires a hefty suspension of disbelief. 

And in keeping with its theatrical roots, “The Prom” makes use of Broadway royalty such as Rannells and DeBose — two actors who, while largely obscure to general film audiences, are the most enjoyable to watch. They never falter in delivering standout musical performances, such as Rannells’ relentlessly energetic “Love Thy Neighbor.” 

In contrast, the film’s use of stunt casting is relatively hit or miss. As expected, Streep and Kerry Washington bring equal parts emotion and heart to their respective roles. As we watch Dee Dee begrudgingly learn to let go of her conceited, fame-obsessed ways, Streep excels in bringing impassioned ballads and hilarity to every scene she’s in. Washington brings her trademark emotional tenacity to her portrayal of Alyssa’s mother, a role that would be completely unremarkable had anyone else played it. 

Corden’s portrayal of Barry, however, is a rather one-dimensional, stereotypical portrayal of a gay person, and his character seems more like a caricature than a believable human being. It’s hard to pay attention to his mannerisms, though, when his attempt at an American accent is both distracting and unsettling, making his scenes the hardest to watch. But as an ensemble, the main four stars work wonderfully, with Streep appropriately pulling the focus her character warrants. 

As far as movie musical adaptations go, “The Prom” is a delightfully creative, queer-centered story that isn’t meant to be deeply analyzed. The film is intended as a fun few hours, a goal it certainly accomplishes. While the film might be nauseating for those expecting a more refined product, it delivers as entertainment to those expecting to be enchanted by a cheery product — in this sense, it’s typical of Broadway musicals in every way. 

“The Prom” is streaming now on Netflix.

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected]. Tweet her at @caitlinkeller20.