Netflix's stellar musical 'The Prom' goes big with Meryl Streep, James Corden and inclusion
Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and James Corden play Broadway actors who help an Indiana teen attend a dance with her girlfriend in Netflix's 'The Prom.' USA TODAY
After the year we’ve all had, Netflix’s glorious musical comedy “The Prom” couldn’t have come at a better time, with its monster-truck rallies, narcissistic A-listers, young lesbian protagonists and inclusiveness that will make any Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.
The joyous adaptation (★★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; streaming Dec. 11) of the Tony-nominated Broadway production lets Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman loose on catchy songs and sneakily complex characters. And in centering the emotional core on fresh faces like Ariana DeBose and newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman, director Ryan Murphy again finds the underdog vibe of “Glee” that captured pop culture’s imagination.
Instead of being preachy about acceptance and loving each other no matter our differences – though it does boast of one foot-stomping gospel hoedown in a mall – “The Prom” lets its infectious jubilance and lovable irreverence do the job.
Netflix in December 2020: What's new and what's expiring
It also starts off with a literal showstopper: Musical-theater big shots Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) strut their stuff on the stage of their high-profile new show “Eleanor!” – like “Hamilton” but with Roosevelts – although opening night is their last once the brutal reviews arrive. The egocentric pair drown their sorrows at a local Sardi’s with bartender/Julliard grad Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and forever chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Kidman), and after determining they all desperately need a PR boost, they set out to be celebrity activists.
Their first project: Emma Nolan (Pellman), an openly gay small-town Indiana teenager who wants to take a date – her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (DeBose) – to their high school prom, which is canceled thanks to the efforts of ultra-conservative PTA president, and Alyssa’s mom, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington). The New York liberals arrive and immediately cause a ruckus, which complicates the situation for the school’s principal, unabashed Dee Dee super-fan Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key). But befriending Emma and learning about her plight unlocks an empathetic side in each of the four Broadway types while also giving the teen girl with an “unruly heart” new confidence to tell her own story in a public way.
“The Prom” isn’t quite as ubiquitous as, say, “Cats” or “Les Miserables," and thus Murphy’s film will feel refreshing for a streaming audience often itching to watch Netflix’s next big thing.
And this movie earns being your new obsession, from superb casting – Streep’s particularly fun while Corden gets one of his most wide-ranging movie roles – to the various songs, which are a cornucopia of empowerment letting each actor shine. Kidman sparkles in the “Chicago”-stye “Zazz” and Rannells’ character gets biblical on some intolerant teens in the rollicking “Love Thy Neighbor.”
The stars never overshadow the youngsters, however: Each of the four grown-up characters is nicely fleshed out when dealing with Emma – Pellman’s scenes with Corden and Kidman are especially sweet. Pellman holds her own throughout, plus she and DeBose, a former “Hamilton” thespian appearing in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story” redo, form a dynamic pairing essential to the film’s aspirational themes of building the kind of world that accepts and loves all.
Sure, hard feelings are forgiven and hateful homophobes turn themselves around probably a smidge too easily, although it all pretty much fits the fantastical nature of musicals with people randomly bursting into song and dances where everybody knows the same moves. ("The Prom" is actually very self-aware of its logic-defying aspects and proudly owns them.)
Anyway, it's not like you'll be bothered that much in the midst of all the happy tears streaming down your face by the time you get to the cathartic finale, combining the youthful enthusiasm of "Footloose" with the utter rejoicing of "Hairspray." “The Prom” is an exuberant love letter to Broadway’s “Let’s put on a show!” ethos that will earworm you till the new year and proves how a great musical – armed with a heartfelt story – unites like nothing else can.