By Sarah Downs
Pretty Woman, the 1990 film that married the story of Pygmalion to the annoying trope of the ‘hooker with a heart of gold,’ has found its way to Broadway in a musical that aims high but falls short of the mark. Burdened by a lackluster score by Bryan Adams, whose style is more suited to country/pop than the stage, Pretty Woman: The Musical is what you get when bad music happens to good singers.
Vivian Ward (Samantha Barks), a prostitute one can never imagine actually turning a trick, picks up Edward Lewis (Andy Karl), a disaffected, ruthless corporate raider, turning his life upside down and reinventing herself in the process. A sympathetic hotel manager, Mr. Thompson (Eric Anderson) and adoring bellhop Giulio (Tommy Bracco) buoy her through her transformation. Fending off the unwanted advances of Edward’s creepy business partner Philip Stuckey (Jason Danieley), Vivian realizes she deserves better and resolves to move on.
Some of the tunes have a decent hook, but none of them ever really hits home. From the uptempo opening that presents the tawdry streets as a place of colorful adventure to heartfelt songs of longing, Adams has done his best to create an arc, but his melodies eventually blend into one. Orfeh as Vivian’s sidekick Kit makes as much as she can of an underwritten character, powering her way across stage with an incredible belt voice. In the role of Mr. Thompson and his surprise alter ego, Eric Anderson commits fully but underwhelms. Dignified and very believable as the factory owner about to lose his shirt, Ezra Knight as James Morse provides one of the evening’s best moments when he teaches Vivian to dance. And then there is the dynamic, scene-stealing Tommy Bracco as the bellhop who really hops to. If NASA ever runs out of rocket fuel, they should just call on him.
And yet, even with its flimsy story and inconsistent score, this show has something any creative team would kill for — the dazzling Samantha Barks. In her, this Pretty Woman has a leading lady who sparkles. She has charm, a gorgeous face and figure, and an amazing voice. And she can act. Barks is much, much more than pretty. She is magic.
They are also lucky to have Andy Karl. He has the kind of charisma money cannot buy. Alas, in the role of conflicted arbitrageur Edward, Karl is utterly wasted. He is the kind of performer you build a show around, not one you shoehorn into a dull role. I know Karl is a replacement for a previous actor but they should have rewritten the role to suit his gifts.
The musical eventually finds its emotional center late in Act II, when Karl and Barks duet on a bare stage. As she does throughout the show, Barks effortlessly hits the back of the house, while we finally get a glimpse of the real Andy Karl. Unencumbered by clunky dialogue and stifling narrative, Karl has the chance to give freer (but not full) rein to his voice and acting ability.
Gregg Barnes‘ costumes are colorful, fun and beautifully executed. I do wish Vivian’s transformation outfit had more pizzazz, but the iconic red dress is a smash. The set has some beautiful individual pieces, but I would not have minded a little more substance. Then again, the contrast between the lively, almost lush setting of the rough streets and the linear barrenness of the opulent hotel does create a striking metaphor.
Director and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell faithfully recreates the film, adding a few touches of his own. I particularly appreciate his nod to the Ascot number from Pretty Woman’s theatrical predecessor, My Fair Lady. Mitchell also handles the intimate scenes with just the right humor, decorum and passion, approaching the unfolding love story without hitting us over the head. He does his best to enliven the stage by keeping the excellent chorus dancing almost constantly — a necessity when the music is so banal.
Pretty Woman has been sold as a modern Cinderella story, but in truth it has much more in common with Romeo and Juliet, complete with balcony scene. Economic status replaces family animosity as the barrier that stands between them; one they breach through sex, and, in time, love. No, this is not Cinderella. Vivian is no weak sister waiting to be saved; she makes her own way, just as Edward does. They are drawn to each other by their mutual need. Both are engaged in different kinds of prostitution and both seek redemption. Vivian has a soul and little money; Edward has lots of money but no soul. It is a match made in Hollywood heaven.
Despite its flaws, Pretty Woman: the Musical does have appeal, in the quirky individuality of its chorus members and supporting players, and the truly stellar performance of Samantha Barks. The audience loved it. Don’t sit in the first three rows, however, or you will end up with a neck ache. You will also be looking up a lot of skirts. Do bring a sweater, or better yet, a parka. The theater is freezing.
PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL, music & lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jerry Valance, book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, music supervision by Will Van Dyke; with 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. Scenic design by David Rockwell, costume design by Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner & Philip S. Rosenberag, sound design by John Shivers, and hair design by Josh Marquette.
At the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st Street); for tickets go to Ticketmaster; running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.