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Theatre in Review: Pretty Woman (Nederlander Theatre)

Samantha Barks, Andy Karl. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

The romance is off. I can't say I was a huge fan of the 1990 film Pretty Woman -- for me, romantic comedy died just after the release of The Philadelphia Story -- but the nascent star power of Julia Roberts and her chemistry with co-star Richard Gere were plain to see. And everyone loves a Cinderella story, I suppose, even when Cinderella starts out as a pro. But the new musical at the Nederlander -- by my count, the 749th adaptation of a hit comedy film in the last decade or so -- proves just how difficult it can be to be repackage a particular kind of movie magic in a different format and for a new generation. Pretty Woman has at its command a pair of thoroughly capable, even charismatic leads, but the support from their creative team just isn't in place. Without it, they can't make beautiful music together.

For those of you whose filmgoing stopped in 1989, Pretty Woman is the story of Vivian Ward, who works a particular spot on Hollywood Boulevard, although not as successfully as you might expect, given her megawatt looks and freshly scrubbed manner. When we meet her, she is fleeing, via the fire escape, a vengeful landlord who wants his back rent. Through circumstances that can only be described as providential, she is hired as a full-time companion, for a week, by Edward Lewis -- a corporate raider so uptight one imagines his T-shirts have buttons -- while he devours a struggling shipbuilding company, selling off the bones for a profit. Aside from the usual services, Vivian is supposed to accompany him to cocktail parties, business dinners, and fundraisers, thus eliminating the muss and fuss of finding someone Edward actually cares about. This is an offer Vivian can't refuse, and everything is jake until that old devil love starts to rear its head.

The book, by the late Garry Marshall and J. F. Lawton -- respectively, the director and screenwriter of the film -- isn't exactly first-class merchandise. It's awfully hard to believe that the chilly, controlling, and mildly phobic Edward allows Vivian, a total stranger and a hooker to boot, to commandeer his expensive borrowed car to drive him to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel; even less plausible is his snap decision to hire this doxy in a blonde wig and thigh-high boots to join him for a series of complicated social situations surrounding a hostile takeover. Then there's the scene in which James Morse, Edward's latest victim, fights furiously to save his boatyard, then -- without a second's thought -- proceeds to cut a rug with Vivian in a hotel ballroom, cuing a production number titled "Don't Forget to Dance." And many of the jokes feel like they've been left out of the refrigerator too long: When an especially bird-brained member of the Hollywood Boulevard sisterhood is told that Vivian is away on a "paid sabbatical," she replies, "I didn't even know she was Jewish!"

The biggest problem, however is the score, by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, which does nothing to advance the relationship of Vivian and Edward. Adams and Vallance have had distinguished careers in pop music, experience that proves remarkably useless here. Their help is needed as the book is alarmingly light on character details. Edward is desperately in need of a shot of sympathy, as he can't maintain a relationship and is sufficiently heartless to have shut down his own father's business; no explanation is forthcoming as to how Vivian ended up selling herself on the streets. But you'll find out nothing about them in the songs, which are so generic they sound like they are given dummy lyrics that somebody intended to fill in later. The titles alone convey the prevailing tone of banality: "I Could Get Used to This," "Luckiest Girl in the World," "You're Beautiful," "Welcome to Our World," "This is My Life," and "Together Forever." The music consists of perfectly pleasant late-eighties pop -- with a touch of country thrown in for Vivian, who comes from Georgia -- but, again, the niceties of writing for the theatre have eluded the songwriters. Just as there is no progression of thought in the lyrics, the melodies repeat themselves without much development before fading away or coming to an abrupt stop. Did nobody -- such as director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell or arranger/orchestrator Will Van Dyke -- try to explain the techniques by which musical-theatre songs are made to build? As a result, a surprising number of them don't get a hand.

If Samantha Barks' Vivian often comes across as a Kappa Kappa Gamma sister in town for a wild weekend, that was also true of Julia Roberts -- the musical, at least, tries to explain this by noting that she is new to the life -- and Barks is a commanding, big-voiced presence with a giddy charm that makes up for a multitude of sins. (One wonders why this bombshell is on a seedy street corner, not the plaything of a studio head who keeps her in diamonds and fine lingerie.) She does very well by her numbers, especially the insistently triumphal "I Can't Go Back," in which the writers, bending themselves into pretzels, try to sell this call-girl-rescue fantasy as a feminist statement. (Those members of the PC police who see Carousel as a domestic-abuse manual are likely to blow a gasket watching Vivian run riot on Rodeo Drive, achieving self-actualization with Edward's credit card.) Once again, Andy Karl proves himself the most versatile of leading men, lending some desperately needed charm to Edward -- who, to put it plainly, is a pill. The actor's work goes a long way toward making it possible for us to swallow the preposterous Frank Capra-esque notion that Edward, with all his millions, is a pitiable, lonely figure, only one romp in the hay away from moral redemption.

In the dual role of Happy Man, a bizarre street character who acts as our emcee, and Mr. Thompson, the hotel supervisor who stage-manages Vivian and Edward's romance, Eric Anderson should receive equal billing with Barks and Karl, so important is his contribution; he provides the show with much of its warmth. Strapped into a black leather jacket and second-skin jeans, sporting a tortured blonde hairdo that suggests Medea with a permanent wave, the overqualified Orfeh delivers as Vivian's wisecracking best friend, Kit, wrestling with an underdeveloped subplot and a second-act number -- titled, yes, "Never Give Up on a Dream" -- that seems to exist only to give her something to do. Brandishing an insincere smile, with a cubic zirconium gleam in his eye, Jason Danieley does his considerable best with the thankless role of Edward's shifty lawyer, who seemingly exists only so he can assault Vivian during the climax. (Don't worry, she makes short work of him.) Ezra Knight lends some dignity to the role of that beleaguered takeover target.

Mitchell has provided a typically slick, good-looking, fast-moving production that makes everything about Pretty Woman -- no matter how dubious -- easier to take. He does especially inventive work in the number "You and I," in which Vivian and Edward attend a production of La Traviata, moving from an opera box to a swirl of waltzing couples at the after-party. David Rockwell's classic-style scenery includes a neon-tinted nightmare of Hollywood Boulevard storefronts; a rear view of the Hollywood sign; a posh, airy hotel suite; a couple of chic Beverly Hills boutiques; and a poolside patio -- all set against a drop offering a mountaintop view of greater LA. The lighting, by Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg, provides the requisite sunshine along with some pleasing sunsets and splashes of saturated color; using sidelight, they beautifully carve the company out of darkness in the opera ball sequence. Many of Gregg Barnes' costumes replicate iconic items from the film, which was probably the way to go, and he renders late-eighties styles without making them look like an episode of Dynasty run amok. John Shivers' sound design is generally clear without being at all overbearing; he also provides various necessary effects.

The climactic events -- including Edward's change of heart about business, Vivian's self-awakening, and the bouquet-of-roses finale -- don't really land because we still don't know who Vivian and Edward are. Nobody -- especially the songwriters -- has done the work of providing the details that would convince us that these two hard-bitten worldlings belong together. Cinderella is all dressed up and the prince is ready to roll -- but this time out, the shoe just doesn't fit. -- David Barbour


(24 August 2018)

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