It’s very sweet that, as in the movie, the two unlikely lovers in the musical “Pretty Woman” end up rescuing one another from their respective lives of streetwalking and soulless moneymaking.
But, please, can someone rescue Andy Karl from Broadway’s multiplex hell?
Karl is a seriously talented performer who played the title role in the colossally misfired stage version of the movie “Rocky” in 2014. Two seasons ago he took the Bill Murray role in the musical adaptation of “Groundhog Day,” another dud and quick fizzle. I had hopes — albeit faint, flickering ones — that Karl might at last find a celluloid-to-stage show worthy of his talents in “Pretty Woman,” in which he plays the male lead in the musical version of the movie that rocketed Julia Roberts and her megawatt smile to stardom opposite Richard Gere.
Consider those hopes dashed. This latest Broadway movie night is no more successful at translating the 1990 screen fairy tale into vividly theatrical material than the preponderance of its predecessors. (Actually, Karl appeared in a few other movie turned musicals including the cheeseball “Saturday Night Fever.”) Dogged in its re-creation of the key scenes from the movie, including large chunks of dialogue, the stage “Pretty Woman” also makes some uninspired attempts to expand on the wisp of a storyline with moderately flashy musical numbers — at least one too many of which features scantily clad Hollywood denizens gyrating as if they’re auditioning for pole access at the nearest Scores club. (Oddly, some of the glamazons of Rodeo Drive are almost as tawdrily clad in a number set in Beverly Hills.)
The resulting show, choreographed and directed by Jerry Mitchell, never comes close to attaining the undeniable romantic magic of the movie version, for the very obvious reason that the movie’s appeal derived not from its rudimentary screenplay or its often clod-hopping direction, but from the sheer magnetism of its two stars and the shimmering chemistry that they generated together, as magnified by the intimate caress of the camera.
I certainly tip my hat to the courage of Karl, who plays the chilly (at first) corporate raider Edward Lewis, and perhaps even more to the bravery of Samantha Barks, as Vivian, the hooker with a heart of — well, let’s say platinum, just to scrape a little grime off the cliché. They are essentially tasked with finding the same recipe for the elusive elixir that Roberts and Gere concocted in the movie, in a vehicle that somehow makes their roles feel like wet cardboard. They give their all, but it’s essentially all for naught.
As mentioned above, the book, by the movie’s director, Garry Marshall (who died in 2016), and its screenwriter, J.F. Lawton, moves beat by beat through the scenes from the movie: Vivian and Edward meet cute(-ish) when he finds himself lost in Hollywood, and Vivian, looking for a trick, offers to show him the way back to his hotel. You probably remember what happens next: a Cinderella story in which Vivian wins her prince by warming up his ruthless businessman’s heart, despite the initial mercenary nature of their mating, and Vivian is inspired to hang up her thigh-high patent leather boots for good.
The musical’s amplifications include a slightly larger role for Vivian’s roommate Kit (played with gusto by the steel-lunged Orfeh), who in this version, tailored to today’s more enlightened attitudes toward portrayals of prostitutes, ultimately and rather preposterously decides to move from breaking the law to enforcing it, by becoming a cop. Also expanded is the subplot regarding Edward’s plan to strip-mine a troubled company and sell off its assets. Here Vivian is even more instrumental in making him see the error of his ways, as we learn about the owners’ plans to build cruise ships.
The show harnesses the plot to a pop-rock score by the Canadian singer-songwriter Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Adams, unsurprisingly, knows his craft, and, in contrast to the week’s other pop-rock-scored musical, “Gettin’ the Band Back Together,” “Pretty Woman” does have some moments of mildly transporting musical pleasure. Perhaps the loveliest song is a solo for Edward called “Freedom,” an affecting ballad (delivered with lustrous ardor by Karl) with a simple, soaring melody. (That said, the lyrics, here and throughout, feel like a thick thesaurus of banalities.)
However, most of the score feels either bland and repetitive (Vivian and Edward trade interchangeable introspective songs in metronomic fashion), or filler of various flavors: a little 1950s jazz here, some Jimmy Buffett there, along with would-be rousing chorus numbers like the act one finale, “You’re Beautiful.” But even this strikes a somewhat sour note, since it implicitly suggests that Vivian only becomes “beautiful” after Edward has dolled her expensively up to look like a Melania Trump who can actually smile.
Barks, making her Broadway debut, brings some varied emotional colors to her singing, but it’s hard not to feel that she is hamstrung by having to not just re-create an iconic movie character, but almost serve up a stage facsimile of Roberts herself — a thankless task if ever there was one. Barks doesn’t even get much of a new wardrobe: the costume designer, Gregg Barnes, replicates the midriff-baring dress that Roberts wore in the opening scenes of the movie, along with those patent-leather boots, as well as the red evening gown that Vivian wears to the opera, and even the polka-dotted dress she wears to the polo grounds (although at least the color is switched). And while Barks has a smile that reads to the last row of the balcony, she cannot succeed in making the thin, shopworn contours of her character fresh.
Karl, with a stiffer role, fares even worse, although I admired how he tempered the contours of his singing, so that as Edward’s hollow heart starts to fill with feeling, his voice grew in luster and intensity. But as with Barks’s Vivian, there’s little Karl can do to prevent the character from coming across as a handsome singing cliché.
There are some pleasurable supporting performances: Eric Anderson vividly differentiates his two distinct characters: a sleazy hustler who presides over the scenes set in the mean streets of Hollywood, and the manager at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, who’s gradually won over by Vivian’s candor and naivete. Orfeh does spunky-tough well, which is more or less all that’s required of her, and Tommy Bracco makes the most of his few comic bits as the hotel’s elevator boy, also seduced by Vivian’s brash liveliness.
But absent a sufficiently invigorating score, the musical merely feels tedious and pedestrian: a long, draggy stroll from Hollywood Boulevard to Beverly Hills — which, if you should ever be so foolish as to attempt it, would be a pretty unappealing exercise.
“Pretty Women” opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Thurs., Aug. 16, 2018.
Creative: Book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton; Music by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance; Lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance; Directed by Jerry Mitchell; Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell; Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design by John Shivers.
Producers: Paula Wagner, Nice Productions, LPO, New Regency Productions, Caiola Productions & Co., James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Hunter Arnold, Graham Burke, Edward Walson, deRoy Kierstead, Michael Cassel Group, Stage Entertainment, Ambassador Theatre Group and The John Gore Organization.
Cast: Samantha Barks, Andy Karl, Eric Anderson, Jason Danieley, Ezra Knight, Orfeh, Allison Blackwell, Tommy Bracco, Brian Cali, Robby Clater, Anna Eilinsfeld, Lauren Lim Jackson, Renée Marino, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Jillian Mueller, Jake Odmark, Jennifer Sanchez, Matthew Stocke, Alex Michael Stoll, Alan Wiggins, Darius Wright.