New York City Theater
Years before the #MeToo movement and the prowls of powerful, philandering oligarchs became such a big deal, there was “Pretty Woman.” The 1990 romcom film, which made a star of Julia Roberts, was not exactly fresh material even then. But what made the film a smash hit was Roberts’ performance and the story’s infusion of warmth.
Now with added music, lyrics and choreography, the basic material, despite a gold-plated production (the Broadway musical looks every inch its megabucks investment), seems even more attenuated. Emphasizing the theme that “everybody’s got a dream,” the book by Garry Marshall and J. F. Lawton imitates the film without enlargement or comment. It’s like a diorama come to fitful life. A paean to conspicuous consumption, the show is, uneasily, a sleazy testament to greed.
Riffing on such familiar material as “Pygmalion” and “Cinderella,” it’s the tale of a hooker named Vivian Ward, picked up by wealthy businessman and Prince Charming, Edward Lewis. For several thousand dollars, she agrees to act as his escort at fancy business events.
One secondary plot involves Edward’s proposed hostile takeover of a firm in trouble. Another is checking in on the colorful characters whom Vivian left behind on her unexpected climb up the ladder. Meanwhile, Edward, the cool business arranger, metamorphoses into a hot romancer with a conscience.
Edward loosens up while Vivian gains self-respect. “It’s true I sold my body, but I never sold my soul,” she sings, echoing Eliza Doolittle’s declaration that she’s above sordidness. The score by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance is at its best when, as in “This Is My Life,” it tinges the melody with a country flavor to pinpoint Vivian’s trailer park background.
As Vivian, the blithe Samantha Barks sings that song, plus “I Can’t Go Back” and the roof-shattering “Anywhere But Here” with force and feeling, She gives her character the aura of an intelligent, wry woman trapped in a desirable body. As Edward, the versatile Andy Karl is both sensuous and heartless. Most delightful is his awkward attempt to let his hair down in a free-wheeling dance.
Two who nearly steal the evening are the single-named Orfeh, funny and tough as that hoary cliché, a prostitute with a heart of gold. Eric Anderson is ingratiating as both Happy Man, a sort of street interlocutor, and Mr. Thompson, the kindly hotel manager and Vivian’s “fairy godfather.” Words of praise for Allison Blackwell, who sings the hell out of “Traviata” arias, and Tommy Bracco, an airy, dancing bellboy.
Gregg Barnes’ costumes (yes, including that red dress) and David Rockwell’s scenic design are elegant and the lighting by Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg veers from Technicolor to black-and-white silhouettes. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is serviceable, as is his direction.
Lightweight, scrubbed clean and bland “Pretty Woman: the Musical” doesn’t break new ground, nor does it pretend to. That is both its success and failure.
--David A. Rosenberg
Aug. 28. 2018