I might not be the target audience for Pretty Woman – The Musical, seeing as how I was never a fan of Pretty Woman – The Movie. Just never thought it was cute, funny or charming when Richard Gere, in that 1990 star-making movie, jokingly snapped shut that proffered jewelry box, drawing the startled, wide-mouthed guffaw that transformed Julia Roberts into Julia Roberts.
And that was 10 years before the Millennium, well before the Laugh became schtick, and well well before #MeToo and Time’s Up did in – to anyone who was listening – the romanticization of sexual commodification in Hollywood.
Follow-your-dream American Idol platitudes and ’90s nostalgia don’t come close to explaining how or why Pretty Woman made its Cinderella trip from rom-com guilty pleasure to cloying, regressive Broadway musical. Bland MOR songs, costumes mistaking gaudy for glitzy and a sugary lead performance add up to one very smudged, very ill-fitting glass slipper.
Based, of course, on the movie about a gold-hearted hooker who gets a high-class make-over courtesy of a wealthy john, Pretty Woman – The Musical (directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell) hits all the film’s beats, crams in a roster of generic-sounding songs written by raspy-voiced ’90s power balladeer Bryan Adams (along with Jim Vallance), and gins up unconvincing nods to empowerment without for a moment thinking them through or taking them seriously.
No doubt Pretty Woman will draw crowds (it already is — box office has been terrific), and no doubt title recognition has its advantages. Fans of the movie will want to see how Samantha Barks fills Roberts’ heels, and why not? Barks, a British actress best known for playing Eponine in the Les Miserables film, got some rave reviews when Pretty Woman played Chicago, and she certainly is a strong, powerhouse singer. Unfortunately she takes the same over-the-top approach when she’s not singing and her grating, heightened acting style just exacerbates the falseness of the entire exercise.
Barks plays Vivian, the Southern trailer-park refugee who winds up, very quickly it seems, hooking in Hollywood (but only, she insists, on her own terms, whatever that means). When wealthy, handsome, visiting businessman Edward (the Richard Gere role here played by Andy Karl, who survives) gets lost on the wrong side of town and seeks direction, he falls instantly in love (there’s “Something About Her” he sings, and that’s as close as the musical gets to explaining Vivian’s supposed charm).
Needing some arm candy for whatever events he has planned that week, Edward buys Vivian. Dress it up in red evening gowns and long white opera gloves, but facts are facts are alternative facts – Edward buys Vivian. He buys her some dresses too, though Gregg Barnes’ costumes show little distinction between the flashy-trashy streetwalker garb and the garish, whalebone-corset high-fashions of Rodeo Drive. Sings someone to Viv: “I always thought you deserved the best/Can’t wait to see you in a classy dress.”
The musical’s ever-present notion that Vivian has some sort of something (“You’re so smart and have so many special gifts,” says Ed) has to be taken on faith. Neither the musical’s book – written by the late Garry Marshall, who directed the movie, and J.F. Lawton – nor its Adams/Vallance songs make Vivian anything more than the type of stock diamond in the rough character who typically needs Woody Allen’s intellectual mentoring. Note that all-male roster of creators.
Pretty Woman makes a faux show of some reverse white-knighting: Viv rescues Ed by showing him the errors of his unthinking, shark tank corporatism. By the end, this Master of the Universe will be toting a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets to business meetings and singing about being “in the boardroom with a silver spoon,” a line that could have two meanings, neither of which make much sense. (The groaners aren’t limited to the lyrics: The book has Viv’s friend and sex work recruiter Kit, overplayed by Orfeh, describing Ed as “a couple McNuggets short of a Happy Meal”).
Time and again, Vivian’s supposedly charming naïveté just comes off as dumb – asked by Ed how much she costs for the entire night, Viv says “You couldn’t afford it” as if the $300 price tag was beyond the means of the tuxedoed man staying in the swanky penthouse suite surrounding her. Sizing up a client’s potential apparently isn’t among Viv’s special gifts.
Or maybe that “you couldn’t afford it” – she means, of course, “you couldn’t afford me” – is just another of the musical’s feints at establishing Vivian’s self-empowerment. We’re instructed time and again that the down-on-her-luck Vivian just won’t give up on her true dreams, though if Pretty Woman bothers to explain dreams of what exactly, I missed it. We know she doesn’t want a Prince Charming to rescue her – that much is stated and re-stated – but in the end, well, let’s just say No fairy tale was harmed in the making of this musical.