By: Paulanne Simmons
August 18, 2018: While Lincoln Center’s My Fair Lady is still packing the house, another show about a poor young woman taken under the wing of a wealthy man has just opened at the Nederlander Theatre. Pretty Woman: The Musical does not have a score by Lerner and Lowe or a book based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, but it does have the imprimatur of an eponymous hit film from 1990.
The book, by Gerry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, faithfully follows the movie, and Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s mostly rock score reflects the musical’s 90s roots. Although both these decisions may attract audiences (especially the all-important tourists), they are artistic mistakes.
A film, which is mostly visual, can survive one-dimensional characters through cues we can readily see. Onstage this is not so easy.
Although Andy Karl, who plays Edward Lewis, has the voice and the looks of a romantic lead, he does nothing to distinguish Edward from any other ruthless businessman we have seen on stage and screen all too often.
As for Samantha Barks, who portrays Vivian Ward, the prostituted who sold her body but not her soul, although she is spunky and charming, she never makes Vivian’s story even mildly special or believable. Nor does the script give us any real insight into why Vivian got involved in her trade. The explanation that she was poor and a “bum magnet” doesn’t cut it. If those were the conditions that turned young girls into hookers, every street would be lined with women looking for business.
And a rock score, which may start off energetically, most of the time ends up more somniferous than sonorous. In fact, some of the songs that work best in Pretty Woman are those that deviate from traditional rock, “On a Night Like Tonight” and “Don’t Forget to Dance.”
With so little going on in the main plot, Pretty Woman depends to a great extent on the supporting characters to pull it through. Eric Anderson is wonderful in his dual roles as the freewheeling Happy Man, who seems to be the self-proclaimed mayor of Hollywood Boulevard, and Mr. Thompson, the very proper, but extremely sympathetic hotel manager. The fact that these two characters are so very different makes his performance all the more extraordinary.
Orfeh adds spice and a reckless naughtiness to the show as Vivian’s best friend, Kit de Luca. And Allison Blackwell as Violetta (in the opera within a musical) would have made Verdi proud and happy.
The ensemble is excellent, especially when director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell gives them something good to work with as he does in “Don’t Forget to Dance” and “You and I” (a fitting mashup of Adams and Vallance with Verdi, whose opera, La Traviata, was, in fact, based on La Dame aux Camelias, a novel and play about a French courtesan, i.e. prostitute).
Pretty Woman does pick up speed in the middle of the first act and even more in the second. But even at its best it never surprises. It just may be that Cinderella stories are no longer appropriate in the 21st century, even when they are cleverly called “Cinderfuckingrella.”
Pretty Woman ***
208 West 41 Street
2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Photography: Mathew Murphy