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Review: The Prom (Netflix)

The musical transitions to the silver screen

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman in The Prom
© Netflix

Watching The Prom would have been a very different experience if last month's US election had gone in a different direction. A recent Biden tweet, celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance on 20 November, shows a marked shift in tone for the nation's executive. Maybe beams of hope can start to emanate where they were once extinguished.

Because The Prom falls flat on its face if the idea of hope that underpins its story isn't believable. Two-hours long, it follows Emma, a high schooler who is barred from attending her prom due to her intention to bring her girlfriend (the story is based on a real-life 2010 incident) and, as a result, a motley assortment of Broadway "stars" hop on the nearest tour bus and (for self-centred, PR purposes) speed on over to Indiana and try to "help".

Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin and Matthew Sklar's musical's eagerly-anticipated release on Netflix (with a starry cast led by the likes of Meryl Streep, Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose) is an unusual one for those on this side of the Atlantic – rarely does a big-screen adaptation precede a transfer from Broadway. So, while The Prom has not yet been seen in the West End or across the UK, it is to be beamed into every household from mid-December.

Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose in The Prom
© Netflix

The piece, which had its stage origins in Atlantia Georgia (being created in the closing moments of the Obama years, rather than the subsequent administration) before hopping to the Great White Way, has some pretty peppy, catchy tunes – "Tonight Belongs To You", "It's Time to Dance" and "Love Thy Neighbor" (sang, aptly, by The Book of Mormon star Andrew Rannells) being the big showstopper numbers.

For Brits dazzled by the award-winning sensation that is Everybody's Talking About Jamie (its own silver-screen debut is set for next spring), the plot may sound rather familiar – prejudice prevents prom fun.

That said, director Ryan Murphy probably wasn't worried about the crossover with Jamie when he directed The Prom (the Broadway director, Casey Nicholaw, keeps choreography duty and exec produces the film). Instead, it's Murphy's cult, pulpy jukebox TV series Glee where the comparisons may more easily be found – high school, show tunes, small-town values, shopping mall flash mobs... the Venn diagram is pretty packed.

But thanks to Murphy's tight ship and fleet, zippy pacing, (especially the work of DP Matthew Libatique, who has credits including the wildly kinetic Black Swan and A Star is Born), the overall visual style is markedly different to that of Glee, though a school bell rounding off a number and a gym scene chock-full of dodgeball-throwing felt painfully like déja vu for any "Gleeks" out there.

James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Keegan-Michael Key
© Netflix

Having watched the film four times (!) now over the course of a few weeks, there's no way to deny that The Prom fits the Netflix form snugly – one would even go so far (eek) as to say that it suits the screen more than it could work in a theatre.

While on Broadway, the show's droll in-jokes about Sardi's and cell-phones (a lovely reference to Patti LuPone's famous rant, for sure) would have played to an easy, self-deprecating bubble that can lap up the breezy jabs at Stephen Schwartz or the revolving door stunt casting in Chicago.

But out in the world wide wilderness of Netflix, everything feels slightly more earnest and open. It's as if the message of The Prom (don't be mean, basically) seems to chime so much more: when Kerry Washington's bigotted PTA-obsessed mother Mrs Greene tells her gay daughter Alyssa (DeBose) that she "just doesn't want her to have a hard life" by coming out, Alyssa simply replies: "It's already hard."

You just hope that, somewhere, the cost of a month's Netflix subscription gave someone the opportunity to finally have a conversation they never expected they could have.

While the message is, as noted above, not all that novel, the piece breaks newer ground when it highlights Emma's reluctance to become an activist or a figurehead, simply because of who she loves. Delving into some of the themes bubbling under the surface, the concept of sacrificing autonomy for the sake of a wider movement is an interesting issue and one that neither the film nor the stage show manage to fully resolve. Perhaps that's the point – there is no answer just yet.

DeBose, for the record, is brilliant (she's also Anita in next year's West Side Story film), as is Pellman in the lead role of Emma. Screen newbies and veterans stand shoulder to shoulder like some great big ensemble: Streep flexes her vocal and dancing chops in "The Lady's Improving" with show-stopping bravado (though her rapping skills are slightly less convincing), while Nicole Kidman, with a part that gets gradually more important as the film goes along, brings the spirit of Bob Fosse to life in the wonderful number "Zazz".

With a wonderful turn both here and in Jingle, Jangle, Keegan-Michael Key is having a very merry Christmas on Netflix, while a surprise guest turn from Tracey Ullman is also welcome. For what it's worth, James Corden gives a better turn than last year's Cats. Make of that what you will.

Largely faithful to the original stage show with some additional dialogue scenes (and a few further digs at fellow Broadway show Godspell), this is a charming musical treat for anyone missing a proscenium arch or a rousing 11 o'clock number. A perfect pandemic tonic.

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