At intermission, my companion thought maybe a fourth glass of wine would make Pretty Woman bearable. She was wrong. Entirely sober, I found myself writing cries for help in my notebook. Mostly we were morose at the talent being wasted in this new musical on Broadway. The overly familiar mixed with the utterly uncreative comes together to make this a musical that does more harm than good. Worst of all, it’s a story about a female character which never gives her a voice.
The musical is strangely centered around the “What’s Your Dream” character, here called “Happy Man” (Eric Anderson). He pops up in various other roles like the magical imp who has made this all happen. This character is about 75% hat choreography and is a frequent irritation in the production. But he sprinkles his magic fairy dust and we are off…
Samantha Barks appears as Vivian, the hooker with a heart of gold, dressed in the exact costume from the movie (Costume Designer Gregg Barnes nails these recreations but one wonders why they had to be preserved in amber). Her bff Kit (Orfeh) pushes her to go after the wealthy but lost Edward (Andy Karl) who’s been grinding the gears of his borrowed Lotus and is now sitting on a bench on Hollywood Boulevard. They make their way back to the Beverly Wilshire where there’s a carpet picnic of strawberries and the offer of a gold condom (like in the movie).
Edward sings all about how this girl has something special (“Something About Her”) but whatever makes her special is not apparent to us. But she nibbles a croissant in her bathrobe (like in the movie), she listens to a vintage walkman (like in the movie). She gets turned away from shopping at a frosty all-white boutique. She finds a sympathetic ear in Mr. Thompson (again Anderson) the manager of the hotel who arranges for her to get a dress and gives her a dancing lesson (DIFFERENT FROM THE MOVIE, because I learning forks is cinematic while learning to tango is theatrical). She and Edward fall in love and she saves him right back, blah blah blah.
It’s not just that the musical is mostly trying to replicate the movie but it’s doing so without any of the sensation of the original or striking a different course of its own making in this new medium. Of course the primary reason for the film’s success was Julia Roberts. The camera ate her up and we wanted more more more.
On stage, that intensity in close-up does not exist. But here they trot out every famous line from the movie. Each time you know that line is coming your buttocks clench at the misfire of whatever new line reading we will experience. Not to blame the actors who are doing what they can. But it’s hard to find new life in someone else’s iconic delivery.
The musical’s tone is all over the place. While it mostly wants to be a fairy tale, it’s decidedly lacking in that sparkle. Yet it’s not a romance either with no real chemistry on stage (but a lot of PG-13 fade to black almost sex scenes). And it’s certainly not gritty and real but it tries to sprinkle some of that in.
The score offers no solution to this tone issue. It fails to create any heat, meaning, or emotional connection. With a blues-rock and rock ballad heavy score by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, the songs explode loudly but never burn with feeling. The guitar heavy sound just blasts over the action and is too aggressive and rough for what might be some intimate thoughts. Though, if you’ve never heard a balls-out blazing electric guitar entre’acte this show has one.
The lyrics do not provide insight into the characters–they just repeat what we already know from the book scenes. Vivian wants to be “Anywhere But Here.” Edwards desires “Freedom.” In the most Pygmalion of moments Pretty Woman offers (Shaw not the Greeks), Vivian sings a song called “I Can’t Go Back” and for a moment I saw a glimmer of what this show could be, a real reconsideration of what her change in status means for her. But blink and it’s over.
No one is really interested in that here. If only they had gone back to Shaw (like the recent My Fair Lady did), and think about this story from Vivian’s perspective (crazy concept I know). What IS to become of her? She and Eliza Dolittle share that fear.
I counted the songs and while Barks sings just as many as Karl I found myself thinking she was barely there. Even in song Vivian’s internal musings are minimized and muted. The more we see of her the less we understand of her character. Instead, we get far too many scenes where she takes off her top. She’s dressed up, polished, reconfigured, and pushed out on stage to loosen up the uptight guy. But the musical itself treats her like the characters do–she’s there to serve the men and be an object for us to look at.
Worse the musical thinks its somehow turning that on its head with tiny gestures of her strength or personality. But built into the bones of the plot is the fundamental elevation of Edward’s own journey of self-discovery. I may have passively accepted those two tales were equal in the film (or by 1990 film standards not unexpected) but as it played out so dully here Vivian feels secondary. The muse. The well of his transformation. In 2018, I ain’t got time for this erasure and nonsense.
Imagine a fairy tale that ended with her making her own choices on her own terms without an emotionally constipated man holding her back. Vivian you don’t need to save him right back. You don’t need saving. You just needed some savings. Girl, run.