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Pretty Woman: The Musical is high on charm, low on substance

This Pretty Woman is best when it stops painstakingly recreating its predecessor and lets the magic of theater take over. Alas, it doesn’t do that enough.

Samantha Barks and Andy Karl in Pretty Woman: The Musical.
Pretty Woman: The Musical, photo by Matthew Murphy
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

“I never joke about money,” streetwalker Vivian tells billionaire investor Edward Lewis during one of the most celebrated meet-cutes of all time: he, lost on his way to Beverly Hills; she, a down-and-out sex worker trying to make rent. A few barbed, sex-laced exchanges later, they’ve found common ground in their equally impressive business acumen and equally stunning good looks — and all the ingredients for Pretty Woman, the most profitable romantic comedy ever created, are in place.

Pretty Woman: The Musical, directed by longtime Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Broadway Bares) and now playing at the Nederlander Theatre, combines all those familiar ingredients and tosses a laid-back score from ’90s rock icon Bryan Adams and his longtime collaborator Jim Vallance into the mix.

The result is frothy and fun, with moments of real loveliness — as long as you’re not looking for any kind of grounding in reality. This Pretty Woman lightens the social commentary that helped make Garry Marshall’s 1990 film so memorably self-aware in peddling its escapism; anchored by an insouciant lead performance from Samantha Barks (best known for playing Éponine onscreen in Les Misérables), it tends to abandon altogether the film’s already ham-fisted portrayal of gritty LA street life.

Setting the fairy tale to music also dulls the film’s wry portrayal of ’80s corporate greed, which was originally couched within a culture only just starting to rethink its excess as it stood on the brink of late-stage capitalism. Mitchell effectively sands the edges off Marshall’s film (even if those edges weren’t all that sharp to begin with).

But honestly? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’m not sure a more sardonic version of Pretty Woman could have stood up onstage in 2018 at all. This version sidesteps sociopolitics — and especially sexual politics — in favor of a kind of gaudy magical realism, lots of dancing, and copious amounts of love for its heroine.

Pretty Woman banks on the charisma of its two stars, and they (mostly) deliver — though they don’t have much to do

When Julia Roberts and Richard Gere catapulted their way to permanent star status as Vivian and Edward, they did it through unmistakable cinematic chemistry. On Broadway, that chemistry inevitably has to be bigger and bolder, and Barks and her co-star, perennial Broadway fave Andy Karl (Groundhog Day), do the job without going overboard.

Because the book (by the late Marshall and J.F. Lawton) almost never diverts from the film script, Barks and Karl have little to do other than be charming, as they slot into roles that are so embedded within the cultural lexicon that much of the audience will likely take notice of what makes it into the stage version and what doesn’t. (Out: divot-stomping, drugs, the song “Pretty Woman,” and “It’s got potential.” In: Vivian’s thigh-high stiletto boots, the cringeworthy dead hooker scene, Rodeo Drive, and Cinder-fucking-rella!)

Luckily for us, Barks and Karl are charming, though they’re both missing the edge their predecessors brought to their roles. Barks plays Vivian like a classic bright-eyed ingenue, conscious of her worth and ready to prove it, rather than as a street-smart, wary kid who needs a nudge to demand more of herself. But Barks also has the stage presence and the vocal chops to disarm, and the show’s Adams/Vallance score is at its best when giving her assertive power numbers (“Anywhere But Here,” “I Can’t Go Back”).

Karl, perhaps swinging too far away from his brilliantly cynical turn in 2016’s Groundhog Day, plays Edward as directionless but essentially pleasant, rather than as a serious cutthroat whose love of The Art of War can’t help him through a midlife crisis. He’s served the least by the score, which doesn’t seem to know how to frame Edward’s complicated interiority except as a vague longing for “Freedom.” That doesn’t mean much given how free he already seems to be when the lights go up.

Still, when watching these two charming people charm one another via light flirtation, piano sex, and seduction by opera, it’s clear that Pretty Woman is trying its best to charm its audience by providing a pleasant, even sedate evening at the theater. The musical doesn’t really encourage anyone to think deeply (or at all) about its premise, its worship of opulence, or whether a heroine with such limited agency can ever really rescue her billionaire hero in kind.

Contributing to the lull is a minimalist set design that sells the show’s “two different worlds” theme — it’s anvilicious, but then, this is LA — by alternating between stately shades of beige for Wiltshire Boulevard and crayon colors for Vivian’s street world. The whole aesthetic is a clean throwback: The stage is dotted with the kind of cutout palm trees that would look right at home on a Trapper Keeper circa 1990; the sex scenes are all backlit like an early ’90s erotic neo-noir.

What that set design does best is make room for fashion — the evening’s unspoken third headliner — and an energetic ensemble that’s generally entertaining even when it has little to do. They’re spearheaded by Eric Anderson’s (Waitress) magical narrator/hotel concierge, and crowd favorite Orfeh (Legally Blonde) as Vivian’s charismatic roommate Kit. They keep things moving, even as the musical’s attempts to beef up the comedic flair of the minor characters tend to fall flat. (Especially tedious are the hotel staff, who seem to be there mainly to be camp comic relief.)

Despite everyone’s best efforts, however, the score starts to lag midway through the show, and it’s here that Pretty Woman’s weakest link is exposed,

Pretty Woman already had the soul of a musical; it just needed a score and staging to match. It doesn’t quite find them — though it still has its moments.

At root, Pretty Woman has always been a musical. It’s a retelling of My Fair Lady with fewer gender hang-ups; there’s even an identical horse racing tableau that serves as the perfect homage. It’s a shameless fantasy, and when its iconic images and lines are set to music — for instance, the tagline “What’s your dream?” becomes an opening ensemble song and dance (“Welcome to Hollywood”) — it becomes even more shameless.

That’s mainly due to the composer, who’s been breathing Pretty Woman’s aesthetic for the past 30 years. In 1990, cellphones were the size of large bricks, the Hubble telescope was just entering orbit, and Bryan Adams was just sitting down in a London studio to write “Everything I Do (I Do It For You),” the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves hit that would go on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time. Pretty Woman: The Musical sounds as though it was written during Adams’s heyday, with a guitar-heavy score and plenty of ballads that could have been plucked from his biggest solo albums.

But while the score starts out fairly strong, a perfect match to the musical’s tonal aesthetic, the songs eventually give way to a kind of sameness. They lack variety in tone, tempo, and energy, ultimately slowing down the pace until boredom sets in. Barks is a pleasure to listen to, but the score sometimes transmits a lethargy that undermines her plucky get-go — and while Mitchell’s choreography is fine, it can’t quite elevate the music to deliver the exuberance of the story he’s telling. Overall, this makes the musical’s narrative elements feel a little pedestrian.

The truest exception to this general trend is the famous opera box sequence. Adams and Vallance mix and meld passages from La Traviata with the show’s score, while the opera itself seems to surround and envelop our two lovers. It’s a genuinely lovely moment — pure creativity that delights an audience and mimics the immersive power of seeing a great stage production for the first time.

It’s in this moment that Pretty Woman comes closest to being a great stage production unto itself — perhaps because it’s in this moment that it’s at its most abstract. Pretty Woman doesn’t try to reconcile the movie’s absurdities and easy wish fulfillment with the brutal reality of the ’90s or any other era. It instead offers us an expanded fantasia on what was already a far-fetched fantasy to begin with. It’s most successful when it stops simply iterating the film, scene by etched-in-memory scene, and lets the spectacle of theater build on the film’s most dazzling moments. If anything, Pretty Woman: The Musical could have dazzled us even more.