12/11/2020 THE PROM Netflix / Area Movie Theatre
GLEE-FUL POLITICS AND ADOLESCENCE
(Sloth Alert -- This is a film adaptation of the musical that premiered in 2016 at the Alliance Theatre. Since I am the laziest of writers, let me begin my comments by self-plagiarizing and editing my 2016 review.)
Netflix’s The Prom, directed by Ryan Murphy (co-creator of Glee and American Horror Story) is a giddy delight, and a joy to experience. At least for Glee fans and musical theatre geeks.
So, you're a pair of Broadway stars who have had too many flops in a row, and you need some good PR. What are the options? Well, there is that girl in small-town Indiana, whose prom was cancelled because the PTA didn't want to let her go with her girlfriend. There's a "cause" that has everything -- villains, heroines, bigotry, and even a Godspell tour bus heading in that direction. The only problem is, what if the girl in question is not up to hosting an Equity Dog-and-Pony show, and what if the town itself (perhaps rightfully) acts as if it were being invaded?
Such is the set-up for another Broadway-bound musical that tested its legs with an Atlanta audience. Originally (and briskly) directed by the talented Casey Nicholaw (Something Rotten,
The Drowsy Chaperone, and 2015's brilliant Alliance production of Tuck Everlasting – and who is credited as Choreographer and Executive Producer on the movie), this was (and still is) a tuneful and heartfelt collision between small town "morals" and big city "political correctness." Yes, the PTA are villains here, but are the "Thespians" really "Doing the Right Thing?"
And that’s about it from my original review. I spent most of it praising the cast and offering suggestions for pre-Broadway tweaks, none of which seemed to have been taken. As a sop to my narcissism (and this is a movie about rampant narcissism), I’ve included my suggestions as a post-script below.
So, let me begin by praising the performers. As Emma, newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman gives what can only be described as a star-making performance. Her singing voice is superb (especially evident on “Unruly Heart”) and her face is a roadmap of subtext and emotion. As her (closeted) love interest Alyssa, Ariana DeBose (Hamilton ensemble and Anita in the upcoming movie of West Side Story) is equally memorable.
As the (so-called) adults, the producers pulled out all the star-power within earshot, with Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells playing the quartet of fading New York stars (Dee Dee, Barry, Angie, and Trent), and all four are anything but fading. I know Mr. Corden has taken some heat for being a straight actor playing a gay stereotype, but, to be honest, I thought he was (slightly) more restrained than Broadway’s Brooks Ashmanskas (who was pretty fabulous himself), bringing enough heart to his interaction with Emma to ground the character and make him believable.
Keegan-Michael Key was a positive delight as the Principal with a crush on Dee Dee and Kerry Washington is eye-opening (who knew she could sing this well?) as the PTA President (and Alyssa’s Mom), Mrs. Greene.
As with the original show, the score (Music by Matthew Sklar and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin) is what will get your toes tapping and your earworms breeding. Songs such as the aforementioned “Unruly Heart” and “Dance With You” are impossible to get out of your head, and the “big” numbers such as “Tonight Belongs to You,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” and the finale (“It’s Time to Dance” will have you on your feet (vainly trying) to dance along. The character numbers (such Angie’s “Zazz,” the Principal’s “We Look to You,” Barry’s “Barry is Going to Prom,” and especially Alyssa’s “Alyssa Greene” are memorable (and character revealing) and a total joy to experience.
Okay, I have to confess to getting a nostalgic Glee vibe from most of the numbers, with Mr. Murphy upping the ante on the Razzle Dazzle past the point of logistical credibility (the small town High School seems to have the same bottomless budget and talent pool as Glee’s high school). And to be strictly honest, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Glee succeeded by appealing to our Gosh-I-Wish-My-School-Coulda-Done-This fantasies, and The Prom appeals to those same impulses. And here, everything tap-dances along merrily and leaves us with the sort of feel-good fuzzies that defined the original production.
The Prom is all about the excess we expect from musicals, and about the first-class talent that can make them soar. I never got to go to my own prom, but after seeing this movie (more than once), I now feel as if I have.
And Jo Ellen Pellman is definitely a talent to watch.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #TheProm #Netflix)
Now, here are my “notes” from the Alliance production for things to look at or keep:
(1) Dee Dee is pretty much a cartoon. Her relationship with the principal is sweet and grounding, but I think more is needed to put audiences on her side. Perhaps something in Act I to show us the "woman" behind the "diva" would help. (Meryl Streep does her Meryl Streep thing to deepen her somewhat, but deep down, the character is still pretty shallow.)
(2) Definitely keep that goofy Godspell chorus. They add to every number they're part of. Including them in "Love Thy Neighbor" is especially meta-ironic. (Here, they did play more of a background role and were trotted out only when the plot required them. Sigh)
(3) Changing the "Hearts and Minds" of all the kids is a little too easy. IMHO, having one or two on Emma's side at the start and one or two not so much at the end would make the resolution seem more grounded.
(4) The PTA Mom needs a bit more dimension. Perhaps an Act One solo would make her seem less the villain and more the passionate antagonist. I really loved the lyric in her Act II duet with her daughter about being perfect because "your father might then come back home." But it comes from nowhere.
I have to say that theatre folk will appreciate all the "in" jokes and "Easter Eggs" on tap -- the opening night party that instantly dies as soon as that first negative review comes in, the Fosse-centric "Zazz." And most of us love the driving and emotional score that's not afraid of sentiment, especially "Dance With You" and "Unruly Hearts." And, of course, "It's Time to Dance" is one of those climactic numbers that makes us all want to get down and get funky (#DatingMyself).
Since my favorite song from the show is “Unruly Heart,” I can’t leave without offering you dueling versions: