Aug 16, 2018
Samantha Barks, the truly formidable young star of “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” achieves something close to a miracle at the Nederlander Theatre. With the help of her savvy director, Jerry Mitchell, this uber-confident, pitch-perfect newbie Brit makes her end-of-the-’80s streetwalker with Cinderella dreams at once smart, vulnerable, really good at her job and fully capable of saving her emotionally stunted, handsome corporate prince from the excesses of his self-absorbed era.
This is a populist, romantic, modestly scaled show aimed squarely at offering a fun night out for Broadway’s most lucrative demographic: women old enough to remember the 1990 film, which has grossed nearly half a billion bucks worldwide. Who would not want a piece of that brand?
But viewed today, “Pretty Woman” is a feminist’s worst nightmare: Vivian Ward, a prostitute made famous by Julia Roberts, is airlifted from Hollywood Boulevard by the corporate raider Edward Lewis, basically Richard Gere’s classier version of the Charlie Sheen character in “Wall Street.” It was the tonal sophistication of the late Garry Marshall who made the movie a hit, and he co-wrote the book to the new musical with the original screenwriter, J.F. Lawton.
Here’s the rub: Some crucial changes have been made to avoid the tricky taint of the patriarchal savior. Andy Karl’s Edward is a man with daddy issues who Vivian teaches to unleash his inner child and contribute to society instead of selling it for parts. He now also is far more of a mess than his paid-for lover, who has much more agency than was the case in the movie.
“Pretty Woman” is still “Pretty Woman,” of course: Costume designer Gregg Barnes makes sure to deliver the iconic red dress for the opera and he is rewarded with gasps. Anyone who doubts the movie’s hold on its fans gets a fast education at that very moment.
But you gotta admire the way the rehab has been constructed: Karl’s buffed Edward is plenty sexy and charming enough to fulfill a “Fifty Shades”-like fantasy, or two, floating down from the balcony, but Karl never gets ahead of his skis. This is the Samantha Barks show, and she sure takes command as she emotes center stage, belting out the aspirational ballads and whipping her benign corporate raider into her own kind of shape.
Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance were recruited to write the original score: They’ve come up with hooky, anthemic pop with lyrics that don’t much advance the plot, show little interest in formative complexity or poetic flights of fancy and generally eschew all the other stuff that matters to musical-theater purists, all 500 of them.
But Adams and Vallance sure make it sounds and feels like the era, all right. Ahead of me, a whole row was swaying.
In essence, “Pretty Woman” has found a smart sweet spot somewhere between nostalgic retro romanticism — unlike at the Chicago tryout, the show now fully and wisely embraces its original era, big hair and all — and the current necessity for heroines to take charge of their fumbling Prince Charmings and self-actualize their tickets to happiness.
Mitchell’s choreography and David Rockwell’s design deftly play both sides of that street, and the show has two clever narrative devices. One is a surrogate working-class mother, embodied by the actress Orfeh, pretty much reconceiving her pedagogical role from “Legally Blonde.” The other is the warm-centered actor Eric Anderson, who essentially acts as Vivian’s benign personal genie, the architect of her nouveau Cinderella fantasy, wherein she doesn’t just dream of her man, she changes him for good.
Ka-ching, I suspect, whatever any of those snobbier critics might think. But Mitchell also makes sure that “Pretty Woman” is PG-13, not R-rated, staged with good taste and some witty artfulness (including the legit operatic voice of Allison Blackwell), and he does not let it become an unsafe place for anyone’s teenage daughter.
The show hardly is advancing the art in any kind of profound way or challenging the film’s base. Not at all. But it clearly pleases an audience that wants to escape from the rudeness of our current discourse. And, if nothing else, it will be remembered for a long while as Barks’ first Broadway roar.