They need to find a new energy source to feed their narcissism, so they seize on a controversy in a small, conservative Indiana town, where a lesbian teen (Jo Ellen Pellman) has been denied the right to take her sweetheart Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose) to the prom. A Sardi’s bartender and recent Juilliard graduate named Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) tells the Broadway trio that if they’re hell-bent on getting in the middle of the prom situation and dusting it with their limousine liberal magic, they can hop on the bus that’s about to take him through Indiana as part of a non-Equity tour of Godspell. Free transportation!
This is a promising setup, and you can see how audiences might’ve adored the stage incarnations. The movie hits pleasure spots for devoted theatergoers, mixing self-deprecating observations about how fatuous and self-serving performers can get when they dabble in politics; a dash of “The Magic of Theater” messaging that congratulates ticket-buyers for making a contribution to a cultural institution; and an earned but sometimes irritating strain of self-satisfaction, mainly having to do with theater’s ability to help ostracized individuals in reactionary small towns get the hell out and finally be themselves without constant fear of censure or worse. The songs are mostly serviceable, but there are enough home runs (including Emma’s soul-centering, meditative song “Just Breathe”) to carry viewers over the rough spots.
Corden, as is so often the case, succeeds mainly by holding his own in the same frame as powerhouse performers like Streep and Rannells. Despite her occasional forays into singing roles, Kidman also falls into the just-OK category, and is much better during non-singing scenes where she’s vamping and being blowsy and minx-like.
Streep has played this sort of part before so many times (with and without songs) that she could do it in her sleep, and there are moments where she’s seems so tuned into her autopilot tendencies that you wouldn’t be surprised if she nodded off. She really only comes to life and shows us new shadings when she’s flirting with the school principal (Keegan Michael Key), who sympathizes with Emmy and is an unabashed Broadway obsessive who’s been crazy about Dee Dee every since he saw her star-making turn in a musical from early in her career.