Broadway Review

Big Mistake. Huge. ‘Pretty Woman: The Musical’ Has Little of the Movie’s Magic.

The Daily Beast

August 16, 2018

There’s no Roy Orbison, a lot of Bryan Adams, and somehow, ‘Pretty Woman: The Musical’ on Broadway messes up the movie’s key moments—most unforgivably the shopping scene.

Heading to Pretty Woman: The Musical on Broadway, you may be thinking: when will I hear those delicious opening chords of Roy Orbison’s hit song?

Brutal answer: you won’t. There is none of the original music from the film, apart from a bit of La Traviata. Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance have composed the music and lyrics for the show, and if you liked Bryan Adams at his most ’90s Bryan Adams-y—the plaintive wailing, the dirgey rock, the insistent twanging of guitars—then you’ll love this.

The song titles drone it all: “Anywhere But Here,” “Luckiest Girl in the World,” “Never Give Up on a Dream,” “I Can’t Go Back.”

Story-wise, having been so thoroughly denied Orbison, you may be thinking: how will they do those famous scenes from the 1990 movie starring Julia Roberts as Vivian and Richard Gere as Edward, an especially tantalizing prospect as the program plays with the movie poster of Roberts in her hooker gear playfully tugging at Gere’s businessman’s tie?

The Broadway program, by contrast, has Vivian in the red dress she wears to the opera, tugging on the same tie, faces obscured. It says a lot: Pretty Woman is a cultural artifact made of familiar symbols. Who needs faces when its fans know its totems so well?

More cynically, perhaps you don’t want to remind those coming to the musical that they are not seeing Roberts and Gere, but rather Samantha Barks and Andy Karl who would be forgiven for feeling a little peeved not having their faces on the program.

You may well wonder how the musical will deal with the film’s candy-coating of prostitution, its sexual and cultural politics, and the fairytale it spins out of financial need and male emotional lack.

But the fans have come for familiarity rather than gnarly late-capitalism gender politics—truly, you can hear the flurries of anticipation as key scenes approach.

The musical promises familiarity too. You’re waiting to hear: “You work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. Huge!”

You’re waiting for Richard Gere to clamp down the jewelry box lid on Julia Roberts’ be-gloved fingers, and her shriek of surprised laughter.

You’re thinking of Vivian in the bubble bath listening on her Walkman and singing along to Prince’s “Kiss” in the bathtub: “I just want your extra time and your *squeal* kiss.”

You’re thinking that final scene with Gere nervously ascending the fire-ladder to Roberts’ scuzzy, soon-to-be-forsaken apartment, of them reuniting; of him saving her and her saving him “right back,” all to the strains of La Traviata.

Prepare for disappointment, Pretty Woman fans, because somehow the musical manages to screw up all these key moments from the movie (why couldn’t Vivian even be singing “Kiss”?), and screw them up badly.

It doesn’t screw them up in the service of doing something new with them, or in service to any kind of originality. It simply does shoddy-feeling re-enactments of the bits of Pretty Woman that fans of the movie have come to see. Those fans cheered the musical mightily at the show I attended, but perhaps more at a competent execution of an imitation—and the musical is not a disaster—rather than a bravura reimagining.

The star of the show is not a listed star of the show. As the audience reaction rightly reflects at the end, the fabulous Tommy Bracco, not listed on the main cast page, audaciously steals this bizarre enterprise playing a bellhop called Giulio.

Giulio doesn’t say much, but he dances and mugs up a beautiful storm. Bracco looks like he’s having the time of his life. Wait to hear that roar at the end. Barks and Karl may be feeling pretty weird about that too.

It’s particular fun to watch Bracco when he and the excellent Eric Anderson as benevolent concierge Mr. Thompson (occupying Hector Elizondo’s film role) strike up a ballroom dancing lesson for Vivian, featuring all the men in the company. (Anderson also plays Happy Man, the character at the beginning and end of the film intoning about Hollywood and dreams.)

This standout slice of choreography by Jerry Mitchell, who also directs the show, is brave: it defies the audience to laugh at it for being “gay,” and then stuns us with the thrilling footwork of Bracco and Thompson.

Whether the characters are lovers or just simpatico colleagues is a lovely side mystery the musical lightly teases and never patronizes or cheapens.

The oddest thing about Pretty Woman is that it does all the things it needs to do badly, and the rare moments it skis off-piste away from the movie’s central storyline are done so well. Such moments are rare and Bracco, the show’s breakout star, features in every one—hence the deserved audience acclaim he and Thompson receive at the curtain call.

Another lovely scene is the opera scene, when Edward takes Vivian to see La Traviata. The musical deftly produces an opera box and a swirl of characters (Allison Blackwell singing Violetta all too briefly and beautifully)—until, gah, stop it, those arias are mixed hideously into Adams’ rock arrangement.

David Rockwell’s design is not sumptuous, and part of the film’s pleasure was visual; it was its own bubble bath. Here, there are odd bits of scaffold (crap apartment), prostitution area (neon signs), and fancy hotel (arches, slice of balcony). Areas that are not these places are a sliver at the front of the stage.

Far more effective is Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s many-colored back-of-stage lighting, which serves as a background for dancers to be silhouetted against, and which endows Los Angeles with a seductively inky night.

Particularly enraging is the shopping scene. The setup is familiar. Edward elicits one shop to treat Vivian like a retail queen with the promise of an “obscene” amount of money spent on the premises. When she strikes off on her own on Rodeo Drive, two snooty sales assistants sneer her out of their shop.

Following her makeover, Vivian returns to exact her revenge: they work on commission, well bad luck them. Now Vivian has to go shopping.

In the movie, it’s a delicious moment—if you can suspend your distaste at Pretty Woman’s cultural politics—while in the stage musical, Barks swallows her moment of victory, the script gallops past itself, and it’s done.

For Armani’s sake, if you’re going to mount Pretty Woman as a musical, the one thing you don’t screw up is the shopping scene.

Barks, it should be said, sings beautifully and brings as much depth, mischief, and assertion to Vivian, no matter how confusedly she is written (by men, Garry Marshall, who directed the movie, and who died in 2016, and the film’s screenwriter J.F. Lawton).

Vivian is painted as a “good” prostitute. She doesn’t kiss. She always has condoms. She even tells us that she sells her body, not her soul. Her best friend Kit (in the film played by Laura San Giacomo, and in the stage musical by Orfeh) even tells her she never belonged on the streets. She seems down to earth, then gets taken away by all the money, then isn’t, then wants independence, then wants love, then wants everything, “the fairytale,” as the men write it for her.

Vivian’s clothing charts this progression. But the supposedly “slutty” streetwear of 1990 (crop top hoop-linked to short skirt), complete with the patent high-heeled boots, now look like conventional street fashion.

The dresses in one song about Rodeo Drive, worn by supposedly rich, smart women, look cheap. The beautiful brown polka dot dress in the polo scene worn by Roberts becomes a wan, navy one in the musical. Good news: The red dress, worn at the opera, is just as stunning on stage as on screen. The audience gasped happily on seeing it.

Vivian’s journey to leaving prostitution behind is signaled by all the saintly white she ends up wearing, starting with Edward’s work shirt and ending in a Melania Trump-style pantsuit.

In Pretty Woman, the only gritty reminder of prostitution is the unseen dead body of “Skinny Marie.” Everyone looks on with distaste, rather than sadness, at her demise.

Kit is meant to be harder than Vivian, but still “good.” Orfeh screeches her way through the role, and does not embody Kit’s flinty goodness.

In the musical, Barks sketches the comedy of the show—Vivian leaving the world of the streets to the plush world of the Beverly Wilshire hotel—with the same wide-eyed earthiness as Roberts affected.

But she and Karl share none of the Roberts-Gere chemistry. Karl plays Edward’s granite-tough emotional removal from the world (resulting from major father issues) as his sole characteristic.

Karl doesn’t twinkle as Gere did. He allows himself an occasional smile, but—without the aid of cinematic close-up—he is otherwise an overcast riot of scowls and moody pouting.

Edward seems stiff when everyone else around him is on the move; and even when he loosens up, he doesn’t look it.

His song, “Freedom” (which stretches for many ponderous minutes, and which is reprised), is peak Adams and posits again the supposedly equalizing dilemma that Edward faces next to Vivian.

As she says, they both screw people for money, but Edward is emotionally cauterized and this has made him a ruthless businessman apparently—happy to pounce on companies, close them down, and swallow them up, but the humanizing effects of meeting Vivian mean he cannot do the same with shipping company owner James Morse (Ezra Knight).

In the film Morse is a sweetly gruff de facto father figure, though on stage Knight isn’t given any room to do anything, helping to undermine not just Morse, but also Edward’s character journey.

With all the things Edward and Vivian cannot do or do not have or feel, the musical tries to produce a comparable rescue fairytale both perform on each other, right down to Edward conquering his fear of heights.

But there is still—on screen and on stage—no fairytale resolution to the contrast of Edward’s much-spoken wealth and Vivian’s unspoken poverty, and to who is using and being used.

The musical edges around both their back stories, without committing to them, to ratchet our sympathies further. But the film had no interest in the true peril and edginess of both Edward and Vivian’s situations, and neither does the musical.

Sure, Edward may be able to gingerly climb a ladder at the end, but his “saving” of Vivian, his transformation of her life, is far more fundamental than her softening of his big bad capitalist wolf.

The nastiest grit in the pearl is Edward’s lawyer, Stuckey (Jason Danieley). He is a villain, Edward’s rampant ID with a briefcase, and though Danieley is hugely ill-served in the script—with not one song, and he really could use one—he aroused this spectator’s sympathy.

He’s the horrible truth of the unfettered capitalism the musical bathes in and rejects simultaneously. He’s oddly the most honest character on stage, rejecting all the sugar around him. He’s helped make Edward all the money that is the engine of the show.

One intriguing and good departure of musical from film is how Stuckey is finally despatched. The movie stages a violent attack by him on Vivian, saved by a heroic punch from Edward.

The musical, welcomingly, imagines a different felling of Stuckey, more attuned to the #MeToo era. Another welcome departure concerns money: in the movie, saintly Vivian leaves it behind on the bed; in the musical, she takes it.

If only the musical had confronted Pretty Woman’s larger problematic story and politics in the same spirit. But the musical is contentedly stuck in the shallowest grooves of its 1990 cinematic image. That doesn’t leave much room for poor Karl and Barks to breathe, or cast Edward and Vivian anew.

Pretty Woman: The Musical is not a disaster. If you loved the film, you won’t be in extreme pain watching this. But neither will you be missing much if you give it a swerve. If the show wishes to remain so enslaved to its original—and fine, there are solid commercial reasons to do so—then its producers should study Marshall’s movie again and ape its magic more rigorously. Or, conversely, they could challenge its fragile fairytale.

Whatever, we’re Team Giulio.