Self-absorbed Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden)’ latest show “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” just closed on opening night with terrible reviews. To prove that they were not the narcissistic celebrities they are accused of, they looked for a cause they can try to help solve, thinking that the good publicity will wash their names clean, and put them back into the favor of the press and the Tonys.
Meanwhile, in Edgewater, Indiana, controversy was brewing in James Madison High School, where their bigoted PTA had decided to cancel prom night because Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a 17 year-old lesbian student wanted to bring a female date. Little did the closed-minded PTA president Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) know that Emma’s girlfriend was actually her own daughter Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who was still in the closet.
Gay icon Dee Dee and unabashedly gay Barry thought that Emma’s civil rights case was the perfect opportunity for them to intervene and make a major statement Their friends, constantly ignored chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and currently gig-less actor Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), join them on their mission to bring their liberal Broadway sensibilities to fight the outdated conservatism that pervades America’s heartland.
Right off the bat, director Ryan Murphy wanted us to know that he was sparing no expense for this project. There was immediately a grand and glittery musical extravaganza atmosphere with the elaborate and high-energy opening number “Changing Lives,” featuring Dee Dee and Barry celebrating on the opening night of their latest show together. This elaborate number went from the red carpet, onto the stage, and into the after-party awaiting reviews.
Meryl Streep’s Dee Dee made her grand entrance into Emma’s school with the showstopping “It’s Not About Me” channeling Eva Peron, catching the eye of principal Mr. Tom Hawkins (Keegan Michael-Key), who was a huge fan of hers. Later, she would perform Dee Dee’s iconic song “The Lady’s Improving” for Tom right in his office. These two lung-busting song numbers really showcased Streep’s vocal range and comic timing, but there were scenes where she was too Patti LuPone for comfort.
Fresh from his maligned performance in “Cats,” James Corden may have proven that he is not really cut out to be a movie actor with his awkward, over-the-top performance here as Barry. His songs, like “Tonight Belongs to You” as Barry was giving Emma a makeover, or “Barry Goes to the Prom” as Barry recalled his own sad prom night experience, only had his goofy and enthusiastic “Car Pool Karaoke” goodwill going for them.
Underused Nicole Kidman, in full Roxy Hart “Chicago” mode, had her own jazzy solo number “Zazz” encouraging Emma to express herself. Andrew Rannell’s best number was “Love Thy Neighbor” performed with teenagers in the fountain area of the mall with a definite “Godspell” vibe. He had another song about inclusivity called “The Acceptance Song,” which was unfortunately booed off when he tried to sing it in a monster truck arena of all places.
Twenty-four-year-old Jo Ellen Pellman makes an auspicious film debut here as Emma Nolan. Her introductory song “Just Breathe” which Pellman sung with a definite “Once on this Island” lilt, related how Emma coped with her daily ordeal in school. She had another song later in the film entitled “Unruly Heart” which had her playing the guitar while singing, with a strong message echoing LGBTQ’s endless quest for acceptance in modern society.
Obviously 29-year old Ariana DeBose played Emma’s partner Alyssa had her own moment with her dramatic solo number “Alyssa Greene” which told about her own predicament while she was trapped in the closet by her imperious mother. “Dance with You” was a pretty romantic duet between Emma and Alyssa, as the embattled duo walked in a whimsical garden glittery purple lights. The final song “Wear Your Crown” had a “Hairspray”-like excitement.
Comedian Keegan-Michael Key was a pleasant surprise when he had a song number himself. Musical theater fans will all identify with Mr. Hawkin’s wistful song “We Look To You” as he earnestly related to Dee Dee why a secondary school administrator like him would save up to go to the theater, hoping to escape the drudgery of reality by being brought to a place of fantasy by their favorite stage performers.
The message of inclusivity and LGBT rights is in most Ryan Murphy’s projects from “Glee” to “Pose,” even in his two recent Netflix drama series “Hollywood” and “Ratched.” “The Prom” was a lot of fun and exuberant, very campy and gay.
Those perky song numbers come one after the other with extravagantly colorful sets, electric youthful choreography and the full Broadway treatment musical theater fans would definitely love.
This review was originally published in the author’s blog, “Fred Said.”
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