When Coronavirus pressed pause in March of this year many key events were missed – weddings, christenings, graduations and proms. The high-school prom – a formal dance that originated in America which has gained global popularity – celebrates the start of adult life as teenagers tear up the dance floor in all of their finery following the ritual of ‘promposals’ (ever more inventive ways to ask someone to prom), corsages and limo rides. Netflix’s latest movie musical The Prom (an adaptation of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin’s 2016 Broadway musical) provides a heartening tale of acceptance and redemption which is well judged to entertain audiences starved of live theatre and events. In these socially distant times seeing exuberant dancers not observing a safe two metre distance is both liberating and jarring; and the sparkle of the whole affair seems to bring the loss faced into even sharper relief. That said, director Ryan Murphy (who musical aficionados will recognise from Glee) has created a movie whose technicolour feelgood vibes almost draw attention from the James Corden casting car crash at its centre.
When the movie adaptation’s cast was announced last year there was much dismay that the Broadway cast who originated roles that had (in several instances) been written for them, had been overlooked in favour of star castings that the movie’s Netflix platform did not necessitate. There was also discussion about whether Corden was the right choice for the flamboyantly gay, larger than life Broadway star at the show’s heart. Corden’s caricature heavy, substance light performance will not quell the dissent, and raises the question about why a coming out story about acceptance is reiterating regressive stereotypes. Tragically during his character’s emotional zenith, Corden is upstaged and out-acted by Tracey Ullman’s wig. He is also not helped by Meryl Streep who relishes her diva-tastic turn as two-time Tony winner Dee Dee Allen, whilst exploring the character’s hidden depths in her burgeoning relationship with Keegan-Michael Key’s relatable high-school principal. Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman competently complete the washed out Broadway quartet determined to quell accusations of narcissism by engaging in celebrity activism to help the film’s heroine Emma go to prom with her girlfriend.
As would be expected from the producer of Glee the movie’s younger cast bring the piece together, breathing life into Casey Nicholaw’s choreography (which feels fresher on screen than it did on Broadway, perhaps courtesy of Matthew Libatique’s effervescent cinematography) and energetically throwing (often literally) themselves into every scene. Jo Ellen Pellman is radiant as Emma, bringing genuine heart to the piece, even when Murphy tries to overwhelm her performance with over-the-top editing, coloured lighting that lacks subtly and (in the touching song ‘Unruly Heart’) a literal rainbow halo. Ariana Debose (who some may recognise from her turn as the Bullet in Hamilton) conveys the conflict of Alyssa – Emma’s closeted girlfriend – who, in trying to please her mother (an underused Kerry Washington), has lost herself.
The moments when the movie widens its lens to embrace the queer spectrum are fleeting but powerful and the significance of such representation in such a mainstream medium should not be undervalued or overlooked. As the characters’ sing about the prom they have built ‘for everyone’ in the movie’s finale the screen is filled with couples. There is joy in this moment as same-sex couples dance together openly celebrating themselves. That such a moment still is an exception worthy of note, rather than the norm (as reactions to recent Strictly routines and pairings can attest) dampens the finale’s celebration a little but the exuberance of this moment and the power of the pairings on screen highlights its importance as our heroines find ‘time to dance’ together without censure.
The Prom is available to watch on Netflix now.
Reviewer: Clare Chandler
Reviewed: 13th December 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★