One hundred and thirty-two minutes of shrill, self-satisfied jazz hands, “The Prom” may be the biggest disappointment of the season. Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Kerry Washington? Starring in a Broadway-to-Netflix version of the 2018 hit musical about a group of comically egotistical stage stars descending on a homophobic Indiana town to school and be schooled? What’s not to like?
Just about everything. As Dee Dee Allen, a Broadway diva with Patti Lupone’s hair and ego but minus the brains, Streep goes slumming with style, doing what she can to make the role a character rather than a caricature. It’s a losing battle. As eternal chorus girl Angie Dickinson (I know, what?), Kidman literally stands around with nothing to do. (Angie gets one second-act song, as if the writers suddenly remembered she were there.)
Corden plays to the bleachers as Barry Glickman, Dee Dee’s costar in an ill-fated musical about Eleanor Roosevelt that closes after one night and sends the cast looking for a way to stay relevant. Seeing a news story about Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a teenage girl in Edgewater, Ind., whose wish to bring a girlfriend to the school prom has caused the PTA to cancel the entire event, Dee Dee, Barry, Angie, and preening Juilliard grad-turned-bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannels, of “Girls”) descend on the town to give support and get publicity.
The trick to making the story work onstage was to paint the New York interlopers as big old liberal hams worthy of ridicule — for ID, Dee Dee carries her two Tonys in her purse — while siding with them against the conservative townies represented by the fire-breathing PTA head Mrs. Greene (Washington) and a handful of mean-girl seniors. Against them are Emma, who as played by the charming Pellman is one of the only two recognizable humans in the movie. The other is her still-closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), a cheerleader and Mrs. Greene’s daughter.
Another crucial figure is the school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), who not only is on Emma’s side but a Broadway fan with a long-standing crush on Dee Dee. I’m all for reversing the cliché of older men involved with younger women, but the burgeoning romance between these two barely makes sense. It’s like expecting Mr. Chips to go home with Norma Desmond.
The larger problem with “The Prom” — which starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 11 — is that taking it off Broadway into even a stylized natural world exposes its stagy flimsiness. The characters are stick figures, the songs are tuneful without being particularly memorable — it’s as if a skilled AI program had composed the melodies — and the message of tolerance is beaten over a viewer’s head with a didactic enthusiasm that quickly comes to seem smug. Do we need a monster truck rally to remind us the people of Edgewater are brain-dead yahoos? That “The Prom” is based on an actual incident, and a shameful one, doesn’t detract from the sense that the audience is being endlessly lectured to by their Broadway betters. Even the most tolerant of viewers may find the show an obnoxious bath of self-congratulatory wokeness.
At least the singing is good, with Streep in fine voice and Pellman and DeBose especially affecting in their numbers (the latter’s second-act ballad “Alyssa Greene” may be the high point). But for a feel-good show, “The Prom” doesn’t feel very good. The director is Ryan Murphy, who gave us “Glee” and has since blown hot (“American Horror Story,” “Pose”) and cold (“Hollywood,” “Ratched”). His handling of this material is practically tragic. There’s some excellent choreography in the big production numbers, or would be if the camera knew where to look; in general, this is the most shoddily filmed musical in recent memory. You go along with the happy hamming of the cast for about half an hour until you realize there’s no modulation and that you’re in for two hours-plus of hoarse, pitched-to-the-balcony “Zazz,” in the words of one song. “Note to self: Don’t be gay in Indiana,” sings Emma, who deserves a better town, a better musical, and a better movie (and a better girlfriend). Note to Murphy: What happens on Broadway should sometimes stay on Broadway. Note to readers: Watch “Hairspray” instead. Either version, I don’t care. I need a drink.
Directed by Ryan Murphy. Written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, based on a concept by Jack Viertel. Starring Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerry Washington, Jo Ellen Pellman. At Kendall Squarae and available on Netflix starting Dec. 11. 130 long minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references, language)