Thanks to the brand of producers, bookwriters, and songwriters mad to make Fort Knox-like money from coin-minting musicals, the latest addition has arrived in the unabating frenzy for turning every movie ever released into a tuner. It’s the 1990 Pretty Woman that made a star of Julia Roberts as she beamed her trillion-watt smile around the globe.
Not to keep in suspense those begging to know how the transformation has turned out, here’s the skinny: What’s called, natch, Pretty Woman, at the Nederlander, is a solidly mediocre entertainment—its mediocrity making it look like much more in a season so far overloaded with barely speakable Broadway and off-Broadway competition.
Successful film director Garry Marshall and collaborator J.F. Lawton, who co-wrote the oh-so-successful screenplay, have joined with chart-topping singer-songwriter Bryan Adams and longtime songwriting collaborator Jim Vallance to pluck the film’s Cinderella tale for stage dressing up, just as top business executive Edward Lewis (Andy Karl) plucks hooker Vivian Ward (Samantha Barks) from seamier Hollywood streets for dressing up as higher-class arm candy.
Because this is a Cinderella tale—unabashedly so (see somewhat further below)—the happily-ever-after outcome is never in doubt. It’s the getting there that must be constantly involving. The adapting parties here employ sufficiently modest guile following Vivian as she not entirely leaves her working-hard-for-the-money street pals behind—among them the tough but soft Kit de Luca (Orfeh)—to better herself under Edward’s tutelage. At the same time, she’s teaching him a thing or two about becoming the better person he’s been unconsciously hoping to be.
In terms of plot stakes, this means that Pretty Woman is mostly a story of two people who, for different reasons, rarely kiss someone else on the mouth (while engaging in other activities) yet grow so fond of each other that when six days have elapsed they can rescind their mouth-kissing ban.
That’s it, with only the merest setbacks to catch them off-guard for a minute or two. One snag is Edward’s devious lawyer, Philip Stuckey (the usually captivating Jason Danieley in a thankless role), who can’t, and won’t, understand his client’s sudden reluctance to go through with the sort of this-side-of-legal deals that have been their stock-in-trade. Stuckey insists on regarding Vivian as a girl of the streets, while Edward, bless his heart, is gradually coming to see her as a woman of the suites. The exact suite would be the Beverly Wiltshire layout in which he’s ensconced her.
By the way, this Pretty Woman has a constantly gyrating narrator, Happy Man (Eric Anderson), who guides the audience through the events. (Did the movie have him? I don’t remember, but I doubt it.) Happy Man serves that purpose only when he hasn’t morphed into BW house manager Mr. Thompson, who initially looks down his nose at Vivian but eventually adjusts his scrutiny.
How about the Adams-Vallance score? Carpentering their first Broadway effort, they two don’t quite burst on the scene. They peek through. The songs, where off rhymes proliferate like mosquitoes in summer, do remain serviceable. Not surprisingly, two pop ballads given Edward—“Freedom” and “You and I”—impress as items Adams himself could render Top 40 candidates. The ballads handed Barks are less so, perhaps for obvious reasons. FYI: The hit Roy Orbison-Bill Dees “Pretty Woman,” used in the movie, isn’t included here.
At the singing, though, Barks and Karl are no slouches when they need to guarantee that things land. They convince appealingly as lovers-to-be-who-eventually-are. Orfeh, her own tornado of energy, and Anderson, his own barrel of molecular fusion, bring welcome life to the proceedings. And others, including Ezra Knight as the head of a troubled company, are fine in support.
Jerry Mitchell directs and choreographs with expected acumen but doesn’t necessarily outdo the results for his previous productions. Certainly, he’s drawn on his show-biz best at rounding up top-drawer craftspersons to go about their own Pretty Woman dressing up. David Rockwell smartly offers the sleek and seamy sides of Tinseltown. Spectators are advised to watch closely a bus-stop bench.
Gregg Barnes provides the costumes and has carefully eyeballed the film so that the purchases Vivian makes on her shopping sprees adequately replicate the originals, and to be sure, the sophisticatedly sexy red gown Roberts dons for her big night out with Richard Gere has been copied and handed over to Barks, who exhibits it extremely well. Lighting designers Philip S. Rosenberg and sound designer John Shivers conjure the sunny, noisy Hollywood milieu.
There is one overarching aspect that emerges unmistakably in a show lifted from a movie relying on charm to detract from its basic credulity-stretch. It’s the Pretty Woman Cinderella spin. The property is also a George Bernard Shaw/Pygmalion clone, which is its own Cinderella tale, of course: clever but somehow arrested-development boy meets down-trodden girl, instructs her in the finer things like how to behave at a ball, then either marries or loses girl.
It may be more than coincidence that Pretty Woman shows up only a few months after My Fair Lady has been revived. To some extent, they’re the same show. Isn’t “pretty woman” just another way to say “my fair lady”? Isn’t there a black-and-white Ascot sequence in My Fair Lady just as in Pretty Woman there’s a black-and-white (with a dash of blue) Polo charity event—with accompanying “Welcome to Our World” song? Giving credit where it’s due, the latter scene has to be a deliberately cunning homage to the former.
Oh, well, on the Cinderella-o-meter, nowhere does Pretty Woman rise to My Fair Lady level, but perhaps it’s pretty fair enough as these things go.
Pretty Woman opened April 16, 2018, at the Nederlander Theatre: Ticket and information: prettywomanthemusical.com