Aug 17, 2018
The purest prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard is plying her trade on Broadway in Pretty Woman: The Musical. The romcom that catapulted Julia Roberts to stardom in 1990 has been repurposed for the stage in a joyous production that should do the same for the career of British actress Samantha Barks.
Despite the movie’s enduring popularity, its appeal has always eluded me, not so much because of its sanitised depiction of streetwalking as its hazy characters and sluggish pacing. Roberts seemed too savvy to play an ingénue like Vivian Ward, the prostitute that cut-throat New York multi-millionaire Edward Lewis (lazily played in the film by Richard Gere) encounters accidentally thanks to his lousy driving, and they never generated much chemistry.
That’s not the case with Barks and co-star Andy Karl, who make a terrifically entertaining and magnetic pair, and help carry a light musical that in lesser hands could be cloying. Best known for her heartbreaking Eponine in the film version of Les Misérables, Barks is sparkling and spunky, a winning foil for Karl (a recent Olivier winner for the musical of Groundhog Day), who finds a rich emotional undercurrent in the uncompromising businessman.
For the uninitiated, the plot sees Edward so smitten with the reluctant hooker that he hires her to stay with him at his Beverly Hills hotel for the week he’s in town. It’s not just about sex. She also accompanies him to business-social functions and brings out a kinder side in him that he’s long buried.
Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, also responsible for Kinky Boots and Legally Blonde, deftly navigates the tricky material and keeps things lively. The songs, by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime writing partner Jim Vallance, flesh out characters that were never fully defined in the film, and have the Eighties pop sound you’d expect from the singer who topped the charts with (Everything I Do) I Do It for You.
Like the film, the musical is set in the Eighties, and most of the plot and lots of the dialogue have been lifted from the movie. (The show’s book is credited to original screenwriter JF Lawton and the film’s director, the late Garry Marshall.) What’s different here is Vivian’s early realisation – in her first song, Anywhere But Here – that she has to get off the streets. She’s both a stronger and more vulnerable character than in the film. Edward, too, has more depth, as his growing attraction to Vivian is explored in the songs Something About Her and Freedom.
But the show-stopper, a song-and-dance gem called Never Give Up On a Dream, doesn’t feature either main character. Instead, a person known as Happy Man (Eric Anderson), who sells maps to stars’ homes but wants to be a singer, advises Vivian’s room-mate Kit (Orfeh), to go after what she really wants.