Review: Ryan Murphy’s Film Version of The Prom Is All Sequins and No Real Heart

In what may just hold the record for stage-to-screen adaptations, Ryan Murphy brings to Netflix a gaudy, busy, over-the-top film version of The Prom, the surprisingly well-received Broadway show that only just premiered in New York in 2018. Though it was nominated for six Tony Awards that year, it had the bad luck to be eligible at the same time as Hadestown (a masterpiece production nominated for a whopping 14 honors, winning eight) and ultimately it went home empty-handed. The Prom, about a lesbian high schooler in predictably conservative Indiana who just wants to bring her girlfriend to the annual spring dance, is the latest production from Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics, who wrote the book with Bob Martin), a duo with a number of pop musicals to their name (gems like Elf the Musical and The Wedding Singer among them). Now Murphy, with the help of a marquee cast including Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman, puts his trademark splashy style on the already glossy production that, like the rest of Broadway, had to close early with the onset of the pandemic.

The Prom
Image courtesy of Netflix

New York Times Critics Pick when it opened, The Prom was mostly praised for its boisterous musical numbers, unabashedly optimistic storyline and bold, colorful production design. While the latter has certainly translated to the film version (Murphy and costumer Lou Eyrich have yet to meet a sequin they can’t put to work), for a show that tries to tow the very fine line between satirical and silly, this interpretation foregoes any hint of subtlety in favor of an over-stuffed, cliche-ridden narrative filmed as if to force movement into numbers that relied on their on-stage choreography for their energy. It’s an eye-popping affair in more ways than one, but whether that’s an altogether positive critique depends more on how much substance one demands of their otherwise flashy movie musicals.

The premise of The Prom sees worlds collide in the sort of shoe-horned way that only works in the movies. On Broadway, a big show flops, leaving self-involved diva Dee Dee (Streep) and leading man Barry (Corden) without work. When, with the help of chorus girl Angie (Kidman) and struggling actor Trent (Andrew Rannells) who moonlights as a bartender, they discover the viral story of a lesbian in Indiana being denied the right to attend prom with her girlfriend, they decide to salvage their dwindling relevancy by bringing their talents to the Midwest to save the day…as one does. Meanwhile in Indiana, stuffy PTA board president Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) holds her conservative ground, insisting on a hetero-only senior dance while school principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) promises to pursue every avenue possible to hold an inclusive event. The student in question, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) just wants to dance with the girl she loves (and the PTA president’s daughter), Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), and finally be able to enjoy the same kind of high school rites of passage her classmates take for granted.

Given the price of a Broadway theater ticket, the many subplots that develop from there are not only welcome but expected; there’s Barry’s tormented relationship with his Midwestern parents and Angie’s pining for a starring role in Chicago; Alyssa’s struggling under her mother’s oppressive expectations and Dee Dee…where to begin with Dee Dee. There’s an ex who took her for all she had, the rumblings of a crush on Mr. Hawkins…suffice it to say, Streep has more than her fair share of the plot to carry in this one. In the film adaptation, however, it all just overshadows and distracts from the story that has any shot at drawing an audience in, that of a young girl growing into her identity and seeking a fair shot at a normal adolescence. Despite Pellman’s charming debut performance, her timidity almost gets lost in the jewel-toned carnival that gets whipped up around her for the sake of some egos.

Though it won’t take home any prizes for nuance (are there such prizes?), The Prom never fails to entertain, if only because it’s trying so dang hard to do so. From the splashy opening sequence in (a recreated) Sardi’s with Streep, Corden and Kidman belting out their plans for the next two hours to the grand-scale crowd scenes with seemingly endless rows of background dancers, the musical numbers are impossible to ignore (even if by later in the film cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s incessant swooping and swirling around his subjects is enough to make one nauseous). So if we’re awarding points for sheer insistence, The Prom surely earns some; between that and the way its three leads commit to their over-the-top bits, it’s enough to keep eyeballs peeled. Whether all that’s enough to recommend the film, losing sight as it does of the actual story it’s trying to tell amidst all the glitter and jazz hands, depends on what one’s looking for in their latest Netflix viewing experience.

A national tour of The Prom is slated to relaunch in 2021, offering audiences across the country a chance to see the production as it’s meant to be seen once we can safely go back to theaters. Perhaps that version will retain the show’s inherent heart and genuine joy, sentiments that Ryan Murphy’s version seems all too eager to replace with brazen product placements, opportunistic casting and busy camerawork. This version of The Prom might be fine for streaming while we wait for the real thing to return, but it’s likely no one’s idea of a memorable night on the dance floor.

The Prom is now streaming on Netflix.

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Lisa Trifone