By Quinn Rigg
We’ll cut to the chase: Sondheim, Pretty Woman is not. This shouldn’t be that much of a demerit. There is room for fun and frivolity in the American musical theatre.
However, though this touring production is packed with stupendously talented performers and exuberant choreography, and elevated by all manners of glitter and sparkle, the book and score fail to connect with one another, even as it clings to a beat-by-beat recreation of the 1990 (and, by now, dated) blockbuster rom-com. (Book by the film’s screenwriter and director, J.F. Lawton and Garry Marshall, respectively.)
(Our review of its 2018 pre-Broadway tryout can be found here.)
The Pygmalion-lite premise of the film — sex worker and corporate raider meet less-than-cute; corporate raider needs company for business soirées; he fixes her up in fancy threads; she teaches him some street smarts — is only bloated with the addition of songs. (Music and lyrics by pop-rockers/M.T. newbies Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.) The ensemble numbers are the standouts; they work wonders with a simple bumping backbeat, and, with director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, inject this musical with any sense of thrill or charm. Unfortunately, their strengths don’t extend to the ballads, best left described as “depthless.”
But Pretty Woman should make “depthless” work, oddly. It should thrive on the innate quirkiness of its frivolous and decadent 90s-L.A. aesthetic, but the score’s lack of subtlety fares even less in the book, which clips along with dry, info-packed chatter to take the audience from laugh to laugh. Charming, admittedly, but it comes at the expense of feeling like we’re building to something. Plot becomes a chore to endure between the gags. Even in the best hands, this can only be at least delightfully quirky, nonsensically hollow, at worst.
Even in fun and frivolity, integration of script and score is the lowest bar to clear.
In spite of all that, Olivia Valli as the titular pretty woman holds the package together, bringing spunk, fire, and a resonant belt to Vivian. Kyle Taylor Parker astounds with his commitment and his infectious delight as the aptly named Happy Man, stealing the show with masterful skill as singer, dancer, and comedian. Among a myriad of fantastic ensemble members, Matthew Vincent Taylor stands out as the lovable, naivish Giulio; at his most playful, his comic chops are hard to beat.
Everyone’s decked out in Rodeo Drive-worthy costuming by Gregg Barnes, each one expressive and articulately fitted, and the pallets of his costume design dot the stage with a painter’s precision.
In a world after Sondheim, amidst another pandemic surge, one wonders if Pretty Woman is a bright-enough beacon to bring us back, even as electrifying performances given on this stage bode well for the theatre’s future. Down, but never out, Broadway’s best remain too bold to fail.
As of December 17th, Pretty Woman has cancelled any remaining performances due to pandemic-related concerns.
Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.