Andy Karl and Samantha Barks in Pretty Woman the Musical: Photo Credit Matthew Murphy
Venue: Nederlander Theatre, New York
Performance Date: 02 March 2019
More often than not, the choice to adapt a much loved movie for the stage raises a few eyebrows. This was never more true than when Pretty Woman: The Musical was announced. Although the initial box office numbers were positive, with the show setting a new house record at the Nederlander Theatre, scoring the highest total for any eight-performance week in the venue’s 97-year history, the critical reception has been more than a little mixed.
The musical is based on the iconic 1990 movie written by JF Lawton, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. The show boasts and incredibly strong creative team with music and lyrics by rock legend Bryan Adams and songwriter Jim Vallance. The plot is a modern-day Cinderella story which centres around Vivian Ward, a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard. A chance encounter with the wealthy and lost (in more ways than one) businessman Edward Lewis catapults her into the world of fine-dining, designer clothes and opera. After pitching herself at $300 for the night Edward hires Vivian on a whim, and the two soon enter into an arrangement that sees Vivian staying the full week to accompany Edward to various social and business engagements.
Pretty Woman initially premiered in March 2018 at the Oriental Theatre, Chicago starring Samantha Barks (Les Misérables) as Vivian and Steve Kazee (Once) as Edward. With a book written by the late Garry Marshall and original writer Lawton, the show was directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots). Shortly before the show’s Broadway premiere, Kazee left the production, and was replaced by three-time Tony nominated actor Andy Karl (Groundhog Day). Pretty Woman began previews at the Nederlander Theatre on 20 July 2018, officially opening on August 16.
Although the subject matter of Pretty Woman was questionable for a romantic comedy, the performances of Gere and Roberts in particular carried Pretty Woman, ultimately causing it’s misgivings to be overlooked. The musical stays true to the original movie with a few tweaks to make it fit better to the stage, with the script more or less identical to the original. This is fine in principal, but causes some significant issues when it comes to the strength of the narrative and the subsequent character development (or lack thereof).
Whilst Samantha Barks offers charming interpretation of Vivian, her performance comes across as somewhat two-dimensional. This is unfortunate as Barks is an incredibly accomplished performer with a beautiful voice and she does the best with the material she has. In adapting the film for the stage more could have been made of Vivian’s back-story, in turn offering her a more solid arc. Instead, Vivian comes across as far too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, especially for a working girl, embroiled in the gritty under belly of downtown Hollywood. Indeed the opening number Welcome to Hollywood is an upbeat number which makes the red light district look like a welcoming fairground.
Vivian’s journey although, clearly a rags to riches one, only scratches the surface of what she truly wants. Her solo number Anywhere but Here probes but never quite gets there.
Andy Karl is the quintessential leading man. His vocals are impeccable and he brings a charismatic suaveness to Edward. Unfortunately though, the lack of substance strikes again leaving Edward’s characterisation lacking a certain essence. This is not least helped by the soundtrack which at times feels like a Bryan Adams concert. Karl’s solo Something About Her should help to convey his conflicted feelings for Vivian but it feels forced and shoehorned in to the narrative.
There is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Eric Anderson who does his best to knit together the two contrasting worlds in his dual role as Happy Man/Mr Thomspon, the latter playing far more to his strengths. His gentle coaxing and mentoring of Vivian is one of the highlights of the show, never more so than during the number On A Night Like Tonight.
The feather in Pretty Woman’s cap and secret weapon is the incomparable Orfeh (Legally Blonde) who plays Vivian’s best friend Kit. Again the character of Kit suffers from a lack of substance but this can just about be overlooked thanks to Orfeh’s stunningly powerful vocals and magnetic stage presence. Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s pop/rock score suits Orfeh’s voice perfectly. Her performances of Rodeo Drive and Never Give Up On A Dream (a duet with Eric Anderson) are incredibly strong numbers, delivered with authority and class.
Pretty Woman does go some way to redeeming itself during the number You and I featuring the insanely talented operatic vocals of Allison Blackwell. The choreography and movement in this scene are by far the strongest of the musical. Costume Designer Gregg Barnes has also done an incredible job with the costumes, never more so than when it comes to Vivian’s iconic red dress.
Pretty Woman has the main ingredients of a smash hit musical, a talented cast; strong core material in the form of a much loved movie and an experienced creative team, but ultimately the piece just falls short. With news recently breaking that the musical will be getting a West End transfer, it will be interesting to see how the show fares in London.