Saturday, August 25, 2018

67 (2018-2019): Review: PRETTY WOMAN (seen August 23, 2018)

“The Billionaire and the Sex Worker” 

Twenty-eight years ago, in 1990, Donald Trump was a married playboy billionaire, a ruthless businessman whose affair with actress Marla Maples led to his divorce that year from Ivana Trump. 

Andy Karl, Samantha Barks. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Also in 1990, the late Garry Marshall’s rom-com movie, Pretty Woman, appeared. It told of a playboy billionaire, a ruthless businessman who’s just broken up with his girlfriend, falling in love with a rough-edged professional sex worker. The pleasant fantasy of their unlikely affair, as embodied in the megawatt charisma of Richard Gere and 23-year-old Julia Roberts helped make this potentially tawdry tale into a blockbuster hit.

So, with today’s news cycle consumed with stories about Trump’s later, more egregious peccadilloes, especially the POTUS-pokes-porn star scandal, maybe this is the right moment for a Broadway adaptation of Pretty Woman’s Cinderella-like treatment of the billionaire falls for sex worker plot, in which each is positively transformed by their relationship. Apart from the title's commercial viability, there aren't too many other reasons to justify the show's existence.

Given the film’s success, and its continuing popularity, it was only a matter of time before it was monetized as a Broadway musical. It’s just as likely that the film that slightly trails it in domestic ticket sales in the same category, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, will one day celebrate its heroine’s nuptials on the Great White Way. If that happens, one can only hope for a sturdier offspring than what Pretty Woman has birthed.

The show, which is doing boffo business, is far from a disaster. Adapted from the original screenplay by its authors, Marshall and J.F. Lawton, the book sticks close to the movie, including much of its dialogue; even the program cover is a direct steal from the film’s poster, except for Vivian’s streetwalker ensemble being replaced by her iconic red gown.

Otherwise, the show has a pleasurable, if undistinguished score—lots of late 80s-sounding soft, country, and folk rock—by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Don’t expect to hear the famous Roy Orbison/Bill Dees song that gives the show its name, or any other tunes from the film’s triple platinum soundtrack.

Some songs border on the commonplace, like “Something About Her”; some too derivative, like “On a Night Like Tonight,” a tango number which may remind you of Evita’s “On This Night of a Thousand Stars”; some are confusing, like “Freedom,” ostensibly about personal feelings but suggestive of a political anthem; and some inspire big production numbers, like “Never Give Up on a Dream,” whose tired title says all you need to know about its novelty.
Eric Anderson, Samantha Barks, Andy Karl, Anna Ellinsfield, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The script, meanwhile, has been deflated by its morphing into a musical. Its use of songs that barely move the action forward or explore characters and themes necessitates a two and a half-hour production that takes the air out of whatever little dramatic action there is. Comedy lines and business are cluttered with clichés (including wheezers like “It’s been a business doing pleasure with you”), and Jerry Mitchell’s energetic direction and choreography substitute obviousness for nuance. Most seriously, its attractive, talented stars—Broadway veteran Andy Karl and Broadway newbie Samantha Barks—are unable to capture Gere and Roberts’s lightning in a bottle, thereby accenting the artificiality of the conceit.

Coming at a time when the best musicals are challenging the musical, staging, design, and thematic standards of the form, Pretty Woman, while superficially entertaining, is a throwback. Those classic predecessors now running in revivals only serve to highlight its shallowness. Its subject, a woman whose empowerment comes from her use of sex to snare a lavishly generous lover, is barely saved from its dated premise by its heroine’s determined desire for self-improvement.

Edward Lewis (Karl), the handsome, perfectly groomed tycoon, whose love life is crumbling, is in Los Angeles to oversee a hostile takeover of James Morse’s (Ezra Knight) company. He borrows the fancy sports car of his lawyer, Philip Stuckey (Jason Danieley), and gets lost in a sleazy spot on Hollywood Boulevard. There, he runs into a pretty, young prostitute, Vivian (Barks, Éponine in the movie of Les Misérables), who needs $300 to pay her rent.
Samantha Barks, Andy Karl. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Edward pays Vivian, who knows a thing or two about cars, to drive him back to his luxury hotel, where, because his girlfriend is no longer available, he makes a deal to pay Vivian $3,000 to be his escort for the week. She will have to attend various business-related functions. One is an elite polo match, which inspires a production number, “Welcome to Our World,” whose lovely costuming (by designer Gregg Barnes) instantly recalls the Ascot races scene in My Fair Lady.
Just as that show’s Henry Higgins teaches flower seller Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady, so does Edward convert the crass, untutored Vivian into an elegantly dressed consort whose innate charm allows her to pass muster among his snooty circle. He even whisks her and that stunning red dress (and diamond necklace) off to San Francisco to see La Traviata, whose plot, of course, reflects his own relationship with Vivian. (Brava to Allison Blackwell for her Violetta aria!)
Andy Karl, Ezra Knight, Samantha Barks, Robby Clater. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Edward and Vivian’s relationship blooms, blows up (after he reveals her secret to the predatory Stuckey), then blossoms again, with Edward not only abandoning his cutthroat practices, but fulfilling Vivian’s childhood fantasy of rescuing her from a tower (her fire escape).
Orfeh. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Playing important supporting roles are another hooker, Vivian’s older, wiser, and more experienced friend, Kit, strongly sung by Orfeh (Legally Blonde), and several characters portrayed by the highly versatile Eric Anderson (Soul Doctor). Most notable are two, a jiving, Hollywood hipster cum narrator called Happy Man, and the punctilious but ultimately warmhearted hotel manager, Mr. Thompson, who only need snap his fingers and say Giulio (Tommy Bracco) for the diminutive, dancing bellhop of that name to appear.

As Edward, Broadway stalwart Karl (Rocky, Groundhog Day) adds another famous movie hero to his musical resume. For all his natural gifts, however, he’s unable to do more with this reactive role than be an attractive straight man to the vivacious Vivian. After all, his is the character of which Marshall said to Gere: “In this movie, one of you moves and one of you does not. Guess which one you are?”

In the role of the one who moves, British actress Barks reveals a dynamic voice well suited for pop singing. Like Roberts, her smile could sell toothpaste, but she falls a bit short of the spontaneity, naturalness, and innocent sophistication to make you believe she is Vivian, rather than acting her. The script says Edward falls in love with her. I had to suspend my disbelief.
Eric Anderson Orfeh. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
This is why the most memorable performance comes not from the leads but from Eric Anderson, who displays a noteworthy range of singing, acting, comic, and dancing skills in his several characters and numbers.

David Rockwell’s set for the multi-scened show moves from locale to locale with units flying and sliding in and out. These range from the simplified—hotel rooms, a booth at the opera, Rodeo Drive boutiques, and so on, often placed against the cyclorama—to the complex (Hollywood Boulevard, with a tenement building at one side). Most look familiar, like renegades from other shows. A small trap downstage allows for various surprise entrances and exits. The sets and actors are often used by Kenneth Posner and Phillip S. Rosenberg’s lighting to create pretty silhouettes against pastel backgrounds.

Cavils aside, it looks so far like Pretty Woman will keep walkin’ down the street. She seems to be what Broadway theatregoers like to meet.


Nederlander Theatre
101 W. 41st St., NYC
Open run