REVIEW: “Pretty Woman: The Musical” is a big mistake. Big. Huge.

REVIEW: “Pretty Woman: The Musical” is a big mistake. Big. Huge.


Much to the disappointment of the woman seated next to me at the performance I attended, “Pretty Woman: The Musical” does not contain rock legend Roy Orbison’s 1964 song “Oh, Pretty Woman”, which inspired the title of the beloved 1990 romantic comedy.

Much to my disappointment—and I suspect hers, too—it does contain what felt like far too many painfully uninspired new songs by ‘80s pop has-been Bryan Adams and his songwriting partner Jim Vallance, a largely Xeroxed script by screenwriter J.F. Lawrence and deceased film director Garry Marshall, and no romance.

Instead of being “pretty”, Vivian Ward, the lovable Hollywood prostitute made famous on screen by Julia Roberts and presently played by Samantha Barks (“Les Misérables” the film) in her Broadway debut, gets an upgrade.  Now she’s “beautiful” and—in a feat of self-conscious #metoo era marketing—“bold”, “fierce”, “funny”, and “strong”, at least according to the t-shirts on sale for $50 in the lobby.  The one-dimensional, Julia Roberts wanna-be character onstage, replete with carbon-copy costumes, could have fooled me.

With supreme confidence in director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”), and deep concern over the all-male production team presenting this story, I entered the Nederlander Theatre, where “Pretty Woman” opened last night, hopeful that this not-needed stage adaptation of a near-perfect (though deeply problematic) movie would surprise me.  And I was surprised, specifically by how empty the experience was, sometimes literally.

The gaudy and cheap-looking set by David Rockwell—like the emotional impact of the show it services—so often exists in silhouette, outlines of palm trees or a hotel lobby.  Suggestive shadows.  Fake.  And this semi-modern fairy tale retelling of the Pygmalion myth, set “once upon a time in the 1980s”, is exactly that: a pale shadow of the film upon which it is based, or should I say, copied from, with characters, dialogue, and songs that suggest something close to genuine human emotion, but never quite get there—a fake marketing enterprise masquerading as a musical that leans entirely upon nostalgia for its source material to hobble along toward a vapid conclusion.

1208_Samantha Barks, Andy Karl and Company in PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018.jpg

The stage itself often feels empty, both of people and compelling content.  Like those t-shirts in the lobby, “Pretty Woman” the musical is too safe and self-aware of its well-known and troubling story, while being simultaneously disinterested in making any artistic departures that might alienate its baked in crowd of fans (the show has shattered box office records at the Nederlander Theatre even before opening) by, say, updating the material.

Channeling musical theatre doyenne Madame Armfeldt, halfway through act one I found myself lamenting: where is style?  Where is skill?  Where is forethought?  Where’s passion in the art?  Where’s craft?

Laying it on thick for its entirety, “Pretty Woman” opens with a place setting song “Welcome to Hollywood”, sung by a map-selling “Happy Man” (whatever that means) who is also Mr. Thompson (Eric Anderson), manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel (memorably played in the film by Héctor Elizondo), Vivian’s ersatz fairy godfather, and apparently a one-time professional ballroom dancer.

It is never quite resolved whether the audience is meant to think these characters are the same person, but he pops up throughout the show, once as conductor at the opera, operating as a ubiquitous narrator with just a tad too much enthusiasm and too little definition.

There, on a silhouetted (of course) Hollywood Boulevard, we meet Vivian and her fellow streetwalking pal, Kit De Luca (Orfeh, “Legally Blonde”), prostitutes and roommates who are behind on paying the rent.  Vivian’s “I want” song is literally introduced by Kit, who is buying a hot dog, asking her if she wants anything.  Sigh. 

Vivian does want to be “Anywhere but Here” (a sentiment I soon shared), which is good because just like in the movie, moments later corporate raider Edward Lewis (Andy Karl, “Groundhog Day”) shows up in a Lotus he can’t drive, picks up Vivian, and whisks her away to six days as his escort at the Beverly Wilshire for which he agrees to pay her $3,000—the original title of the film.  The two fall in love, kind of, and well, you know the story.

Boyish and sweet, Mr. Karl lacks the suavity and impatient temperament that Richard Gere brought to the role of Edward, no doubt on purpose, so as to avoid the obvious “ick” factor at the heart of the plot, barely repackaged here with a few lame twinges of phony feminism.  Likewise, Ms. Banks’ Vivian is never convincingly seductive or, really, anything more than an attempt to copy Ms. Roberts’ inimitable performance.  The two have zero chemistry, which further frustrates the supposed “fairy tale” we are meant to be watching unfold.  

Each of Mr. Adams and Mr. Vallance’s bland pop ballads (these are not musical theatre songs, at all) are incapable of expressing more than one idea at a time, and usually do so by repeating an inane lyric, often the title of the song, over and over. 

Baldly simplistic and predictable, every cliché is employed, from words to chord progressions.  Bored for most, I played a game in my head to guess the upcoming rhyme and did quite well.  Unlike in, say, every other musical, we learn next to nothing about our characters in songs that exist solely for purpose of revealing internal feelings and personal history.  Larger production numbers meant to entertain fall thunderously flat with Mr. Mitchell’s choreography conspicuously lacking its usual energy and creativity (I think I spied a box step).

Samantha Barks and Andy Karl in PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018.jpg

The snippets of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in act two were a real treat—perhaps the only genuinely musical moments that introduce any emotional quality.  Otherwise, we know nothing about Vivian’s background until a clunky expository dump in act two, and even then, don’t understand what she or Edward really want.  Their desires—his: “freedom”, hers: “to be anywhere but here”—are nebulously defined, and their absent romance so clearly not going to last beyond the finale.

The script, and Mr. Rockwell’s set, lack the grit that could up the stakes for our characters.  And yet another musical set in the 1980s is afraid to really go there with the costumes (Gregg Barnes), hair (Josh Marquette), and makeup (Fiona Misfud).  If I see one more 1980s-based leading man in a modern fitting suit, I will scream.  Where are the boxy, double breasted cuts and wide legs for the men and shoulder pads for the women?  I may be young, but I do remember them.

Nothing about “Pretty Woman” authentically reads as its time and place. I also don’t think a member of the production team ever sat in the mezzanine, where I was seated, for the passerelle in front of the stage extends beyond the downstage sight line of us peons above (who, incidentally, pay the same amount as those in the orchestra).  It was never fatal, but c’mon, throw us a bone.

Every stage adaptation of an existing property must first answer the basic question of why?  In many cases, it is easily answered, but turning this classic 1990 film into a stage musical was a big mistake, or as Vivian would say: “huge”.  The songs add nothing to the existing material, which is cheapened in this stale reproduction with its community theatre-like mise-en-scène.

If you want to see a superb Pygmalion story, just trot uptown to catch Bartlett Sher’s stunning revival of “My Fair Lady” now playing at Lincoln Center.  Try as they might, Messrs. Adams and Vallance can’t top Lerner and Loewe.

Bottom Line: “Pretty Woman: The Musical” features a painfully uninspired new score, a largely Xeroxed script, no romance, and a gaudy and cheap-looking production entirely devoid of emotion or entertainment.  Turning this classic 1990 film into a stage musical was a big mistake.  Huge.

Pretty Woman: The Musical
Nederlander Theatre
208 West 41st Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: two hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: August 16, 2018
Final Performance: August 18, 2019

tl;dr for August 21st

tl;dr for August 14th