Vivian (Samantha Banks) is a hooker, Edward (Andy Karl) is a killer corporate raider who meets her on Hollywood Boulevard, and if the ensuing romance is no less a fable than it was in the hit 1990 movie, there are fewer charms and almost no surprises in Pretty Woman: The Musical.
All production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
The book of the musical, written by J.F. Lawton and the late Garry Marshall, who were the screenwriter and the director of the movie, makes virtually no changes from the original. Admittedly, that movie delighted tens of millions and made a star of 22-year-old Julia Roberts. But 28 years later, amidst a year of #MeToo reckoning, the most obvious concession to the changed times is from the t-shirts on sale at the concession booths, printed with the words:
On stage, Pretty Woman remains a fairy tale trafficking in archetypes that the producers must have convinced themselves can appeal to both genders.
Edward is the kind of man that women supposedly fantasize about – rich, secretly romantic, and so in love with you he’s willing to change his entire personality, and sweep you away from your troubles; Vivian is the kind of woman that men supposedly fantasize about – a sexy prostitute who will do whatever you tell her to do but knows all about cars and is presentable in mixed company. (If the performance I attended is any gauge, the tale will mostly attract middle aged women.)
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Pretty Woman was one of a quartet of Broadway musicals that were criticized earlier this year for containing retrograde gender politics and all-male creative teams. But defenders of the other three (revivals of Carousel, My Fair Lady and Kiss Me Kate) could at least point to their glorious music. The score for Pretty Woman, by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his long-time collaborator Jim Vallance, is energetic pop, sometimes catchy, more often generic-sounding, like outtakes from a Bryan Adams album. The show’s most interesting musical moment occurs when Edward and Vivian attend the opera, and Brian Cali and especially Allison Blackwell as the opera stars sing from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the story of the courtesan Violetta and her lover Alfredo. This is interspersed with “You and I,” in which Edward realizes he has fallen for Vivian, a lovely-sounding song only slightly undermined by the kind of bland lyrics that are typical of the show:
Much to my surprise
You and I
It was right before my eyes
I would give almost anything
the stars, the moon, and the sky
All for you and I
(Is it a lost cause to point out that the last phrase is grammatically incorrect?)
Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell has put together an entertainment with his usual professional polish, though one could almost characterize the song-and-dance numbers in Pretty Woman as restrained and peripheral compared to the Tony winner’s transformation of Kinky Boots from a small independent British film into a full-fledged Broadway musical extravaganza. The designers are all pros, though only Gregg Barnes’ increasingly elegant costumes for Samantha Barks make a special impression.
Barks is of course more than just an exquisite clotheshorse, though there’s no denying her beauty. With a steely set of pipes and a winning manner, the 27-year-old British actress (born the year the movie was made), makes a noteworthy Broadway debut as Vivian Ward. It’s a challenging role. She’s supposed to be down-to-earth and charming, puncturing the affectations of rich snobs and their servants – yet she luxuriates in those riches once Edward bestows them on her and even behaves spitefully to two shop clerks who work on commission. (We’re clearly meant to side with her because they earlier declined to serve her. But I ask you – if you were a sales clerk and a prostitute in hot pants, thigh-high plastic boots and a cheap blonde wig walked into your store waving a credit card with a man’s name on it, what would you do?)
She’s supposed to be sensitive, smart and caring, yet she’s somehow so desperate that she continues to hustle on the streets after a cop tells her that another prostitute was killed and dumped in a dumpster (a throwaway moment that is surely supposed to add some grit to the proceedings, but doesn’t.)
Will this show do for Samantha Barks what the movie did for Julia Roberts? I doubt it. But anybody who remembers her moving film debut as Éponine in the 2012 movie of Les Miz might well expect stardom for her eventually.
Many of her cast mates are Broadway veterans whose performances in previous productions won me over. The work they do in Pretty Woman is fine, sometimes more than fine, but it cannot completely compensate for characters that feel airbrushed for commercial consumption.
Andy Karl is a wonderful performer with an appealing personality. But Edward is supposed to be unappealing at the outset, an amoral businessman who makes a killing by destroying productive companies. He is also a joyless workaholic (A sign of the odd values of this show is that his predatory behavior feels less condemned than his aversion to parties.) His character’s transformation felt more genuine in Karl’s last star turn on Broadway, Groundhog Day, when, as Phil Connors, he was a more convincing jerk.
Orfeh (who is Karl’s wife in real life) portrays Vivian’s friend and roommate Kit, who is hard-edged yet amiable and adorable. There is something a bit too adorable about the character, given that she’s a streetwalker who encouraged Vivian to become one.
Eric Anderson, a versatile character actor who’s played everybody on Broadway from the singing rabbi of Soul Doctor to the short order cook of Waitress, here plays two characters. One is an oddly dressed, hip-hopping street hustler named Happy Man who sells celebrity maps to passersby, and sings songs with titles like “Welcome to Hollywood” and “Never Give Up On a Dream.” The other is Mr. Thompson, the dapper manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, who shows great kindness to the street prostitute that Edward deposits in his establishment. The two Anderson characters even share a song, “Don’t Forget to Dance,” which shows off Anderson’s quick-change artistry.
Jason Daniely portrays the one irredeemable villain in the musical, Stuckey, Edward’s lawyer. He’s more gung-ho about Edward’s deal to destroy a shipbuilding company than Edward is. This seems unlikely, but enables the audience to blame somebody else for Edward’s predatory inclinations. Stuckey is also rude to Vivian when he spots her at a charity function and worries that she’s a commercial spy. Edward admits to Stuckey that Vivian is a prostitute, whom he has hired for the week to accompany him for the week he’s in L.A. Stuckey then approaches her: “It’s ironic because you both screw people for money,” Stuckey says with a cackle.
That line is the catalyst for what can pass for a crossroads in the plot, since it makes Vivian angry and she has it out with Edward, who realizes he can’t live without her.
There may be some fans of the movie who feel they can’t live without seeing Pretty Woman on stage. But they should be forewarned that Stuckey has a point. Pretty Woman, though supposedly still a romantic comedy, is less about love than about money.
Pretty Woman is on stage at the Nederlander Theater (208 West 41st Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10036)
Tickets and details
Pretty Woman . Music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, a book by Garry Marshall and .F. Lawton, direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. cenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner & Philip S. Rosenberg, sound design by John Shivers, hair design by Josh Marquette, and music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Will Van Dyke. Featuring Samantha Barks, Andy Karl, Orfeh, Eric Anderson, Jason Danieley, Ezra Knight, Allison Blackwell, Tommy Bracco, Brian Calì, Robby Clater, Jessica Crouch, Nico DeJesus, Anna Eilinsfeld, Matt Farcher, Lauren Lim Jackson, Renée Marino, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Jillian Mueller, Jake Odmark, Jennifer Sanchez, Matthew Stocke, Alex Michael Stoll, Alan Wiggins, Jesse Wildman Foster, and Darius Wright. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.