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Ariana DeBose and Jo Ellen Pellman (center) have their own senior rite of passage in "The Prom."

When Ryan Murphy was announced as the director of a filmed version of a recent Broadway musical, I and other watchers of his TV show Glee knew that he presented possibilities for the movie to be wonderful or terrible or both. The reviews for The Prom have indeed been all over the map, and I’m afraid this one falls on the “terrible” side. This film is playing in Tarrant County multiplexes this weekend, but I’m actually recommending that you see it on Netflix next week. On the small screen, it will be less overbearing.

The story opens in the town of Edgewater, Indiana, where the PTA president (Kerry Washington) announces the cancelation of the senior prom in order to prevent Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), the one openly gay student there, from taking her girlfriend as a date. Out in New York, her story reaches Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman (Meryl Streep and James Corden), who need some positive p.r. following the flop of their musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Angie and Trent (Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells), two actor friends of theirs whose careers are in worse states of failure, tag along with them to the Hoosier State to teach the hicks a lesson about tolerance and get Emma to the prom. The thespians mostly make things worse. Because there are no coincidences in a story like this, Emma’s secret girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) who plans to come out by showing up to prom with her is the student council president, head cheerleader, and the daughter of that PTA president.

Most of the issues here actually aren’t Murphy’s fault, in my estimation. The musical, which premiered on Broadway two years ago, suffers from a lack of memorable songs (written by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar). Four self-absorbed theatrical divas is a lot for one story, and this one is too slight to handle that load. There’s not enough business to go around, with Kidman ending up shortchanged the worst. This happens despite the surfeit of plotlines — the film could have easily lost Barry’s whole subplot confronting the parents who rejected him for being gay. While the whole controversy is supposed to be about Emma, the story loses track of her for long stretches, as it does for all the characters.

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The actors are supposed to be the butt of the joke as clueless East Coast liberals who don’t understand Middle America, but too often we feel like the film’s sympathies are with them as they gawk at the spa-less chain hotel where they’re staying and the town where the best restaurant is an Applebee’s. Many musicals, especially ones about teens, have a layer of self-aware satire. This movie aims for that, but the likes of Hairspray, Hamlet 2, and Anna and the Apocalypse are all smarter about it. They flow better, too.

Having said all this, the filmmaking does bring its own problems to the table. Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is bland and does little justice to the talents of the dancers here. The humor comes from the culture clash, and Murphy (an Indianapolis native) could have brought in some specificity to the Indiana setting. No such luck. For all of Murphy’s experience with Glee, he’s actually not that good at directing musical numbers. The visuals lack flair and explosiveness, and the only time he manages anything clever is during Trent’s gospel-style song “Love Thy Neighbor” at a shopping mall, where the camera pans up and finds two large TV monitors hanging at an angle that suggests a cross.

Streep manages to pitch her singing style exactly halfway between Patti LuPone’s and Liza Minnelli’s, but the best performances are on the edges of this. Washington shows some musical theater chops here that we haven’t seen from her, and Keegan-Michael Key finds some nice understatement in the part of a high-school principal who’s fighting for Emma’s rights. His song “We Look to You” about the magic of live theater will strike a chord with anyone who’s been missing that experience during this pandemic. (Between this and fellow 2020 Netflix film Jingle Jangle, you wonder why he isn’t in all the musicals.) He’s one of the few performers not straining for effect, as is the newcomer Pellman, who has a lovely reedy voice and executes nice, tight turns when she pirouettes. This is enough to keep The Prom from being an unmitigated disaster. Even so, the star power in this musical promises an event, and it winds up being one in too many of the wrong ways.

The Prom
Starring Meryl Streep, James Corden, and Nicole Kidman. Directed by Ryan Murphy. Written by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, based on their musical. Rated PG-13.

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