By Patrick O’Brien
In a world accustomed to but wary of high-profile films getting the musical treatment, Pretty Woman, now playing a tryout in Chicago, at least has conjured up one reason for being.
She is Samantha Barks, who plays Vivian, the unhappy hooker in search of that something-more, the character that launched Julia Roberts into the celluloid stratosphere. Having done several turns as Éponine in Les Misérables concerts and its feature film, she’s clearly unafraid of tackling iconic roles, and whoa nelly, she’s by turns brash and vulnerable, funny but not manic-pixie, sings like a champ, and just about makes one wonder “Julia who?”
Whether Broadway stardom awaits her when the show opens in New York in the fall, we’ll have to wait and see. After all, stars have been made on shows with even fewer reasons for being than Pretty Woman.
They ought to have plenty more reasons, least of which include a sterling cast, and an ace in director Jerry Mitchell, who helped turn theatre newbie Cyndi Lauper into a Tony-winning composer-lyricist, so why not platinum-sellers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, too? This is not to mention all the ballyhoo the creative team has made about updating this modern prince-dependent fairy tale to our more consciously equitable era.
As is though…
The cast is sterling, or at least filled with sterling names, but at play, they’re indistinct. Steve Kazee, in Richard Gere’s shoes as corporate raider Edward, is not so much buttoned-up as he is cloistered, and only in fleeting bars does he set alight that smolder that brought him acclaim in Once. Orfeh can match Barks in sass and vocal power, but she simply comes and goes. Jason Danieley is simply wasted as the villain, with no chance whatsoever to show off. (He apparently had a song, but as of press night, it was cut.)
These concerns all loop back to the material. The music is major-key easy listening or power ballads; nice to the ears and occasionally catchy, even, well, pretty, like “Freedom” or “This is My Life.” But the lyrics are wan “tonight/[you look so] right” or “girl/world” sentiments. That’s unfortunately expected for first-time pop star theatre writers, but Mitchell, who really ought to know better, rarely livens up the words or gives them a deeper context. It was easy to count how many times one character left the stage, the other wistfully stared after them, then parked themselves and belted out a number.
(David Rockwell’s airy neon set provides just as much attractive choreography. And Will van Dyke’s orchestrations give the music enough juice to cross the finish line.)
The best moment of the whole show was when song and staging actually did get together, like when Eric Anderson, playing the manager of Edward’s ritzy hotel (among other small roles, each one delightful), gives Vivian some dancing pointers prior to a business dinner date. “On a Night Like Tonight” isn’t a great song — it’s a swoony-enough tune, with a right dash of cha-cha, but still with bum lyrics — but having the bellhops teach some steps along with Edward goes some way towards giving Vivian some hope that she’s not alone in this unfamiliar world.
As for updating the story? Even without photographic memory of the movie, there’s a suspicion the only update J.F. Lawton made was running his screenplay through his computer and adding notes on ideal spots for songs. Vivian’s strong independence — and she was tough enough as is — is little more drastic than kneeing an attacker in the groin. And she gets an Act One finale where her beauty is asserted in song — not her inner beauty, but the beauty that comes from running rampant on Rodeo Drive with a rich man’s credit card.
It’s inoffensive enough, but “inoffensive” isn’t a selling point.
Seeing as the film’s director, Garry Marshall, also has a hand in the book before his passing, they may not have wanted to mess with a proven thing. Pretty Woman the movie made half a billion on a budget of fifteen million. Why can’t the musical, too? (The producers haven’t disclosed the budget.) They have a star-in-waiting, and they have a title that’s money in the bank. This show will do well for Bark’s career, but as for guarantees, the Broadway stage is littered with surefire bets that didn’t pay off.
This trial run is the eleventh hour. Midnight’s coming; the team has till then to shore up their Cinderella story and give their title actress the musical she deserves, and the fun yet relevant night out that they promised.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Pretty Woman” through April 15 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph. More information and tickets are available here. Promo photo by Matthew Murphy.