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A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
By Elyse Sommer
According to the press materials, The Prom sounded like a fun show, especially since its director and choreographer, Casey Nicolow, had a track record for musicals with lots of energetic dance numbers, eye-popping visuals and good stories full of talent-showcasing roles that managed to address contemporary issues and still deliver an old-fashioned musical entertainment.
The actors Nicholaw had assembled were all top-drawer musical theater veterans. I therefore knew that the leading roles were in good hands. As it turned out, the show lived up to its promise to be fun and have a good chance to win them Drama Desk, Outer Critics or even Tony awards.
But not so fast. That matinee I attended was live theater where a performance might undergo subtle differences from day to day and the leads have understudies in case of emergencies that make them unable to perform. And my performance did indeed have to deal with an emergency. Leading lady Beth Leavel became ill just minutes before the show was about to begin.
Sure, I was disappointed, but we stayed in our seats. After all, this wasn't as if Bette Midler had gotten sick the day I was booked to see her blockbuster return to Broadway in a revival of Hello, Dolly. Unlike that show, The Prom was not a one-star show and brand new. Its other main players were all on board and ready to wow us. And so they did. And so did that afternoon's Dee Dee Allen, ensemble member Kate Marilla. In fact, Marilla's stepping into the role so late added an extra little thrill of added an extra little thrill about experiencing something special
Fortunately Leavel wasn't seriously ill so she did win a Tony and the show generally did well at awards time. However, it didn't do as well at the box office and closed after just 8 months.
That brings us to The Prom now streaming at Netflix. As a rule, stage musicals that make it to the screen are long-running hits so get an immediate boost from a huge fan base. Thus Ryan Murphy, who knows his way around creating films appealing to large audiences, had to rev up a very modestly successful show into a must-stream Netflix offering. Even if the Broadway production had filmed a performance before it closed, Murphy wouldn't have opted to use the original cast and just add more sophisticated technology as Thomas Kail did for his filming of Hamilton.
The Prom fhat Murphy now directs is thus a Netflix extravaganza even though it does still follow the basic plot; The show-closing reviews of their latest Broadway show prompts its self-absorbed stars, Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, to search out a publicity generating cause to support as a means to restore their diminished reputations. The cause is a brouhaha at an Indiana town's high school where the small-minded PTA has shut down its prom rather than let Emma Nolan, a lesbian student, attend with her girlfriend. So, Dee Dee and Barry head to Indiana to help Emma have her prom. They're accompanied on their self-serving mission by their pal Angie Dickinson, whose hopes of playing Roxie Hart in Chicago remain unrealized after years in the chorus; also Trent Oliver, a pretentious Julliard graduate bartending at Sardi's between gigs. Unsurprisingly, the mission works both ways and a feel-good ending is inevitable. The town's bigots become more open-minded, and the narcissistic celebrities tap into their humbler, more genuine selves. (For more details, see my review here
Since this adaptation must appeal to a much broader demographic than musical theater fans to hit the 10 most popular in the USA Netflix list the celebrities storming the town of Edgewater, Indiana must be played by actors who, unlike the character they play, are at the top of their game and popular enough to be household names.
Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden need no publicity scheme to insure their mega-star status. But does Ryan Muphy's adaptation of The Prom serve their talents well? What's more, can their star power plus Indiana-raised Murphy's familiarity and obvious fondness for stories set mosty in a Hoosier State's high school, (Glee, and more recently The Politician), put the show in that top 10 Netflix list?
The Prom has made it to that list. But if I were inclined to make my own top 10 list, this movie wouldn't make mine. And so, what follows is s my takeaway on the cast and the movie overall.
DIrector Murphy certainly hasn't been shy about going all out on the razzle-dazzle and using every trick he's mastered for pacey, eye-popping film-making. But all that glitz can be exhausting and bathed as it is in sequins and neon lights it at times feels rather Las Vegas-ish — especially when it cuts into the sweeter, quieter scenes in which Emma finds the courage to stand up for herself and the celebrities truly champion her cause.
While stars with non-musical backgrounds have turned in memorable performances (think. Yul Brynner in The King and I and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady), I would have preferred to have experienced musical performers do the singing and dancing here. The two femaele leads, especially Streep, deliver their songs and dances with plenty of pizzazz. Streep not only zestfully belts out her numbers, which include a fun rap song, "Wear Your Crown," written especially for her. She manages to really nail Dee Dee's persona. But late show host James Corden, who I admired on stage in The History Boys and the still available to THIRTEEN Passport subscribers One Man Two Governores, is a far more so-so choice even though he too gets, and makes the most, of a song written especially for him "Simply Love." Andrew Rannells, whose Trent Oliver is part of the New York group, may be somewhat less well known, but he's a genuine musical theater star whose chief roles includr Book of Mormon ., also directed by Murphy. The pluses of a cast with musical theater credentialed cast are evident in his delivery of "Love Thy Neighbor."
Ultimately, this movie's most satisfying moments come from newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman who plays Emma. Perhaps having an openly gay new cabinet member, who happens to be from Indiana will give The Prom an extra dose of uplift. .
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The Prom Released on Netflix December 11, 2020
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, based on their Broadway musical
Music by Matthew Sklar; Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Meryl Streep as Dee Dee Allen, a narcissistic Broadway actress.
James Corden as Barry Glickman, a narcissistic Broadway actor.
Sam Pillow as young Barry Glickman
Nicole Kidman as Angie Dickinson, a chorus girl.
Keegan-Michael Key as Principal Hawkins, the principal of Edgewater High School.
Andrew Rannells as Trent Oliver, a Julliard graduate.
Ariana DeBose as Alyssa Greene, a girl and the daughter of Mrs. Greene.
Kerry Washington as Mrs. Greene, Alyssa's mother and the head of Edwater's PTA.
Tracey Ullman as Vera, Barry's mother.
Kevin Chamberlin as Sheldon, Dee Dee and Barry's publicist.
Mary Kay Place as Grandma Bea, Emma's grandmother.
Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma Nolan, a girl who loves Alyssa.
Logan Riley Hassel as Kaylee, a girl who disapproves of Emma taking a girl to the prom.
Sofia Deler as Shelby, a girl and friend of Kaylee who disapproves of Emma taking a girl to the prom.
Nathaniel J. Potvin as Kevin, the boyfriend of Kaylee.
Nico Greetham as Nick, the boyfriend of Shelby.
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Jamie Walker McCall
Costume designer: Lou Eyrich
Editors: Peggy Tachdjian, Danielle Wang
Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Casting: Alexa L. Fogel
Running time: 2 hours and 12 minutes
Produced for Netflix originals and released for Netflix members December 11, 2020
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer