Let the healing begin!
A divisive election, culture wars that separated a country into midwestern and southern cultists flirting with fascism, and everybody else led by “Broadway liberals,” and here’s a show aimed at putting a little tickle in the bitchslap America handed Red State America.
I mean, come on, Indiana et al — just sit back and TAKE it!
“The Prom” had its preaching-to-the-choir musical comedy of “inclusion” moment back in 2018. A Ryan Murphy (“Glee!”) all-star treatment of it for Netflix was sure to have the subtlety of a camp sledgehammer wrapped in chiffon. It traffics in some of the very stereotypes it sends up and wastes a Big Name here and there.
But it’s often laugh-out-loud funny, over-the-top, from its casting to its run time.
Edgewater, Indiana has just canceled its prom because the “out” gay teen in town (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to bring her girlfriend. A Broadway musical about this woman “nobody ever heard of,” Eleanor Roosevelt, has closed on opening night. Stars Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman (Meryl Streep and James Corden).
They need a “brand” reset, a quick public way to rinse the “failure” off their resumes, “a cause…some little injustice we can drive to” as Dee Dee puts it. What outrage is “trending?” Edgewater! Joined by Angie Dickinson (?!), a never-quite-star hoofer played by Nicole Kidman and waiter-actor-Juilliard alumnus (Andrew Rannells), they hitch a ride on a “Godspell! tour bus to roll in, strike a blow for justice and tolerance and blow away those yokels with showmanship.
“We will be the biggest thing to happen in Indiana, well, whatever happened in Indiana!” They will be fish-out-water in rural America, where “this Apples and Bees” place is but speaking in tongues to the simple, giddy Great White Way folk.
Kerry Washington plays the homophobic martinet in charge of the PTA, well-cast as the villain. Keegan-Michael Key is the show-tune fanguy principal.
The story ambles from outrage to seeming triumph, ugly twists that snatch defeat from victory, and our self-righteous “narcissists” (“I still don’t understand what’s wrong with that?”) have genuine attacks of conscience and try to clean up the bigger mess they’ve made of things — with lots and lots of Broadway show references, their only point of reference.
Need to come out of your shell? Think Fosse.
“If your hands are shaking, just’em into JAZZ hands!”
Streep’s career third-act of belting showtunes continues to shock and awe. Corden will sing anything anywhere and has a light way with the sad gay Broadway who gets sentimental over this poor high school kid’s plight, although there’s little subtle about this “I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs” caricature. And girl, you know there’s a makeover coming.
Key showed off his singing in “Jingle Jangle,” and Washington has surprising vocal chops. Kidman makes the most of a faded kitten chorine’s sad but empowering moment.
As a show, the tunes range from amusing vamps to exposition-packing filler. The emotional stuff doesn’t have nearly the punch of the vain self-parodies of Broadway and its “types” and the over-the-top insults.
“This isn’t America. This is INDIANA!”
Emma’s introductory tune, “Note to self, don’t be gay in Indiana…Note to self, people suck in Indiana” is typically topical. Dee Dee’s “I read three fourths of a news story and knew I HAD to come” points the jabs the other way.
“Join with me and sing this acceptance song…bigotry’s not big of me, and it’s not big of youuuuuu.”
Coming out stories — a subtext here — may never go out of style, but this feels instantly dated. Dressing Emma in “lesbian” sweater vests, stocking cap or butch overalls has “gay as a bucket of wigs” about it, too. The whole shebang could stand a healthy 2020 “updating.”
At its heart, “The Prom” is a “let’s put on a show” musical caught up in lip service about “reaching out” across America’s divides, “confronting” religious-backed intolerance without a prayer of changing a single mind — not on Broadway, not Netflix subscribers — especially those hate-watching it.
Murphy’s direction gives it giddy moments and long, maudlin drags between them. Fans of Broadway and spoofs like “Forbidden Broadway” (and “Glee!”) will get a kick out of big names playing versions of Patti Lupone divas and every small town gay guy who ever danced his way to fame.
The “You’re not alone/It gets better” message? Those who “get it” got it years ago. Those who don’t have already moved on to other things they’ll never get.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language
Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jo Ellen Pellman, Mary Kay Place, Andrew Rannells, Tracy Ullman and Kerry Washington.
Credits: Directed by Ryan Murphy, script by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:12