It’s fitting that Ryan Murphy, the man who gave us “Glee,” would return to high school by directing the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical “The Prom” — and even more fitting that a story about fresh-faced kids winning out over self-absorbed adults should succeed because a first-time lead outshines the big stars.
The story starts in Edgewater, Ind., where high school senior Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) asks the PTA at James Madison High School for one small thing: Let her go to prom with her girlfriend. The PTA, headed by the imperious Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), says no — but since barring Emma would bring legal ramifications, the PTA opts to cancel prom altogether.
Word of this Midwestern culture war reaches the ears of narcissistic Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden). Dee Dee and Barry have just learned critics have pilloried their Broadway musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, because of how utterly unlikable the stars are. Desperate for a cause to boost their public images, they go to Indiana with their Broadway friends — chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and actor-turned-bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) — in tow to shake up the bluenoses.
Emma, though, doesn’t want to be the central attraction of a national media spectacle. She just wants to dance with her girlfriend — who happens to be Mrs. Greene’s closeted daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). The school’s principal, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), tries to negotiate a way to restore the prom, but his efforts are cut off when the overbearing Broadway brigade storms a PTA meeting.
As a theater piece, “The Prom” — music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, book by Bob Martin and Beguelin — is filled to overflowing with show-stopping numbers that spotlight the main characters. On film, though, a showstopper just means killing the rhythm as you get the show started again.
The adult characters all get their moments, particularly in the numbers that satirize the stars’ self-involvement. Dee Dee sings “It’s Not About Me” when she interrupts the PTA meeting, name checking “Beauty and the Beast” and “Evita,” and making it clear it’s really all about her. Trent’s condescending attempt to shame the locals, “The Acceptance Song,” makes zero headway in changing hearts and minds, though it deftly skewers phony celebrity altruism.
Surprisingly, the most genuine emotional moment in the early going comes from Key’s Principal Hawkins, a fan of Dee Dee and live theater, who sings about the necessity of stage performance in the yearning “We Look to You.” When Hawkins becomes disillusioned by his heroine, it’s up to Dee Dee to win him back, which Streep does effectively in her big number, “The Lady’s Improving.”
Kidman and Rannells get their solos in the second half. Kidman channels her inner Bob Fosse in Angie’s pep talk to Emma, “Zazz.” And Rannells (star of the original cast of “The Book of Mormon”) gives an energetic turn to “Love Thy Neighbor,” in which Trent confronts Emma’s classmates about their biblical hypocrisy.
But the grownups take a back seat when Emma and Alyssa move to center stage. DeBose is a Broadway veteran, one of the most visible members of the original “Hamilton” ensemble (she’s the one in the afro), and she’s touching as the girl trying to achieve the perfection her mother demands. But it’s Pellman, in her first leading role, who utterly charms us as Emma, gathering up her courage and showing her resilience in the face of her town’s intolerance. When Pellman sings Emma’s declarative “Unruly Heart,” the tears it elicits are genuine.
Murphy presents “The Prom” with lots of theatrical razzle-dazzle, and plenty of room for the famous faces to show off and generate some laughs. But when it counts, “The Prom’s” loyalties are with its young characters, who wear their hearts on their sleeves, right next to their wrist corsages.
The Broadway musical gets a spirited movie retelling, with a big cast led by Meryl Streep — but it’s newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman who audiences will fall for by the time it’s over.
Where • Theaters where open.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 4. (Streaming on Netflix, starting Dec. 11.)
Rated • PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language.
Running time • 131 minutes.