Review: ‘Pretty Woman’ Panders on Broadway
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, August 24, 2018
If you’re wondering whether the new musical version of Pretty Woman contains even a shred of inspiration, look no further than the show’s logo. It’s pretty much just an anonymous version of the movie’s logo, with two people back to back, the woman pulling on the man’s tie, and the logo running down the right side of the image.
On a related note, a few weeks back, Playbill.com published a piece about costume designer Gregg Barnes’s work on Pretty Woman, in which he revealed that much of his design for the show was based on the costumes from the movie. I suppose it’s refreshing in a way for a production and its staff to openly admit that they’re not even trying.
Pretty Woman is yet another in a seemingly endless series of musicals based on safely branded properties. Some of these shows have been fairly decent, even great. (The Producers and The Full Monty come to mind.) But a far larger number have represented nothing more than cynical cash grabs, successful or no.
Truth be told, Pretty Woman on the whole represents a not-entirely-unpleasant evening, even if it doesn’t even come close to quality musical theater. Yeah, the tired trope of the hooker with a heart of gold is pretty ridiculous, the Disney-fied rendering of street life is risible, and the very premise of the story — Edward, billionaire, hires Vivian, hooker, and they proceed to fall in love — galls in its lack of credibility.
But somehow, you can’t help rooting for these characters, especially as played by the eminently appealing Andy Karl and Samantha Barks. It may have seemed an impossible task to take the place of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, but both Karl and Barks manage artfully to make the roles their own.
Andy Karl brings out a certain vulnerability in the Edward character. (But when, oh, when will Karl star in a show that’s fully worthy of his talents? I mean, Rocky the Musical? Groundhog Day? Feh.) Barks is a delight, with an irresistible smile and a winsome way of delivering even the hoariest of laugh lines.
Pretty Woman is, of course, based on the 1990 film of the same name, which was written by J.F. Lawton and directed by the late Garry Marshall. The book to the musical version is credited to both Marshall and Lawton, although Marshall died in 2016. As is often true of these movie tie-ins, neither Marshall nor Lawton has a single Broadway musical credit between them, although Marshall did create an execrable musical based on Happy Days that never made it past regional houses.
The actual story to Pretty Woman works pretty well, and the characters, as I’ve mentioned, are ingratiating. It was rather galling, however, to hear Vivian spout a joke brazenly stolen from Groucho Marx, the one about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.
Pretty Woman has music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Yes, that Bryan Adams, The one who wrote and rasped such soft rock classics as “Heaven,” “Summer of ’69,” and “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” The songs that Adams and Vallance have crafted for Pretty Woman are serviceable but uninspired. The score plays like a collection of Bryan Adams B-sides.
The music has an anodyne, ‘80s pop-infected feel, but the lyrics are painfully generic. You only need to look at the song titles to see the lack of inspiration in the lyrics: “Something About Her,” “On a Night Like Tonight,” “Luckiest Girl in the World,” “You’re Beautiful,” “Freedom,” “Never Give Up on a Dream.”
As long as you don’t listen to the lyrics, there’s a certain rousing quality to some of the songs. Some, however, feel like low-rent musical theater knock-offs, particularly the second act opener, called “Welcome to Our World,” a rather feeble attempt at an “Ascot Gavotte” moment.
The songs don’t always justify their existence, as with “Never Give Up on a Dream,” a would-be showstopper for Orfeh (demonstrating her typical kick-ass-and-take-no-prisoners aplomb) as Vivian’s friend and co-hooker Kit, and Eric Anderson, who plays a variety of characters throughout the show, and is apparently supposed to be a kind of narrator/life force/spirit animal for the show. The song feels wedged in to give these two characters something to do in the second act.
One of the major mistakes that the producers of Pretty Woman have made lies in hiring Jerry Mitchell to direct the show. Mitchell produces passable work as a choreographer, although his dances often contain lots of movement but not a lot of meaning. But Mitchell’s successes as a director have always baffled me. It seems as though Mitchell’s shows (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots, On Your Feet) have succeeded despite his efforts, not because of them.
Mitchell’s direction favors action over clarity; There’s too much business and not enough focus. At numerous times during Pretty Woman, I noticed actors needing to yell their lines out to make them heard above the tumult. Mitchell often includes meaningless stage business to fill time, for instance here when one of Eric Anderson’s characters, “Happy Man” (he’s actually called that in the script) gives Vivian and another hooker one of his maps to the stars.
At another point, Andy Karl starts playing the piano in his hotel suite for no apparent reason. I guess it’s supposed to mean that the character is loosening up and learning to live again, but the move felt unmotivated in the vacuum left by Mitchell’s lack of direction.
So far, Pretty Woman has been selling fairly well, consistently bringing in more than $1 million a week. I get the sense that the people who want to see this show are going to get their money’s worth. But they’re not going to get much more.
Pretty Woman The Musical at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, for an open run. Book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton; music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Directed by Jerry Mitchell; scenic design by David Rockwell; costume design by Gregg Barnes; lighting design by Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg; sound design by John Shivers; hair design by Josh Marquette; music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Will Van Dyke.
Cast: Samantha Barks, Andy Karl, Orfeh, Eric Anderson, Jason Danieley, Ezra Knight, Allison Blackwell, Tommy Bracco, Brian Calì, Robby Clater, Jessica Crouch, NicoDeJesus, 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.
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Cover: Andy Karl and Samantha Barks in ‘Pretty Woman The Musical;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.