By Nadia Dalimonte
Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman in The Prom (2020)
Ryan Murphy’s The Prom, adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, is full of energy and has a heartfelt story. Sporadically endearing and fun moments show promise for what could have been the case as a whole. The gorgeous set design, glittery costumes, and some lovely performances from an all-star cast (Meryl Streep and Keegan-Michael Key especially) shine bright. Newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman and co-star Ariana DeBose are so charming to watch. At the core of this narrative, there are great essential messages of acceptance and finding your light. But the end result of The Prom doesn’t sparkle enough to maintain its lengthy runtime. Mostly forgettable musical numbers and an unfortunate casting decision distract from the resonating heart of the story.
The story follows a group of former Broadway stars who have lost their glitter, putting them in a professional rut. After receiving particularly harsh feedback from an Eleanor Roosevelt-inspired show that flops, Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) wallow in defeat. They confide in fellow former stars around them, namely chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and child actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells). The glitter is fading; entering crisis mode, they desperately crave good PR that will wash them clean and get them back into good graces with the public again. Angie, wistful for Chicago’s leading role of Roxie Hart, suggests they need a cause to support. But their celebrity activism doesn’t go according to plan.
The film opens with PTA head Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) leading a ban on gay couples attending a high school prom in Indiana. News reaches the stars, and after a few Twitter scrolls, they find a headline about a high school girl named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) whose prom gets cancelled because she wants to take her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) as her date. Desperate to boost their public image and save the day, the starry troupe show up at the Indiana high school in support of Emma. Unbeknownst to them, Emma needs to tell her story in her own time, in her own way. Emma doesn’t wish to be a scapegoat, or a martyr, or a cautionary tale. She just wants to dance with her girlfriend at prom. Jo Ellen Pellman is a shining star; she’s a joy to watch and gives a resonating performance. She also shares delightful chemistry with Ariana DeBose, whose character is feeling the pressure and not ready to come out to her mother. It would have been great to see both characters explored in even greater detail as individuals and as a couple. Instead a lot of the focus is pulled back towards character arcs of the self-obsessed theater troupe, which has its pros and cons.
The troupe’s Indiana visit proves to be much more personal than they anticipated. Broadway star Dee Dee’s self-centered personality is challenged when she meets high school principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), a passionate theatergoer enamored with her work. Dee Dee’s performances are an escape that help Tom heal. His pure love and admiration for her stage persona is put to the test the more they get to know each other. Their bond is incredibly endearing to watch unfold, in large part thanks to great performances by Meryl Streep and Keegan-Michael Key. They have lovely chemistry and the film soars up a notch whenever they appear on screen. In addition to sharing a charming bond with Key, Streep brings expected pathos and has fun with her musical numbers, particularly a great solo early on. Key also has a great number that speaks to the healing power of entertainment and particularly theater.
The rest of the cast are mostly fun but a bit wasted, particularly Nicole Kidman who shines brilliantly in every single brief moment but doesn’t have much to do apart from a fun little zazz number with Pellman’s character. It’s one of the few memorable numbers in the film. Andrew Rannells and Kerry Washington are good with the material given. The most unfortunate piece of acting comes from James Corden, who evidently tries hard but misses. Considering his character’s emotional journey and increasing screen time, his miscast performance takes center stage and brings down the energy of an otherwise fine film that works to celebrate an essential message.