‘Pretty Woman: The Musical’ Is So Unpretty

Broadway pimps out a Hollywood title. Don't buy it.

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Pretty Woman
Andy Karl as Edward meets Samantha Barks as Vivian in "Pretty Woman: The Musical." Photos: Matthew Murphy.

There’s a moment early in the first act of Pretty Woman: The Musical — adapted by the late Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton from Lawton’s screenplay for the 1990 Julia Roberts film that has landed on Broadway with a neon-colored thud — that clues us into the show’s stumbling course and conflicting tone and messages.

Vivian (lovely Samantha Barks, a bit adrift), a broke, charming, joke-spewing Hollywood streetwalker, is picked up by visiting NYC corporate shark Edward (affable Andy Karl, never managing the shark part). Edward installs Vivian in his hotel penthouse for what they each expect will be an evening of negotiated romance. When Edward realizes that he can utilize this party girl as pretty arm candy for business events during the week ahead — he’s single; she’s pretty enough; she expects nothing from him — they negotiate a weekly fee that solves the problem of Vivian’s back rent. (An early draft of the film was titled Three Thousand). When Edward leaves for work the next day, Vivian calls her roommate, Kit (big-voiced Orfeh, evoking protective tomboy more than intimate friend) to come over and gawk at the fancy digs.

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In the film Pretty Woman, this sequence is charming: two kids squealing with delight at bubble bath and fancy sheets. Here, the sequence is addressed by “Luckiest Girl in the World,” a number that rewrites the story with a bellhop, Giulio (flexible, energetic Tommy Bracco), executing gymnastic backflips across the stage. Like a kick line, this generates applause. But in a song meant for cash-strapped girlfriends to be amazed and delighted by the opulence all around them, they wind up shunted to the side. Basically, the creators of the show, and choreographer-director Jerry Mitchell, don’t trust that women can hold the stage.

Vivian and Edward get closer at the hotel piano.
The set up of Pretty Woman then follows the flow of the film: a Cinderella story in a Wall Street shell. From its transactional beginning, Vivian and Edward’s story evolves when Edward wises up and does the right thing with a particular deal; when Vivian heeds the advice of the hotel manager who takes an interest in her (he knows she’s a hooker but he’s beautiful and she behaves); and when Vivian dreams of becoming someone other than who she has been. In the film, Vivian and Edward share character development: Vivian dressed up and coached by the manager to “pass” at a few corporate events and coming to believe that she wants more out of life; Edward realizing that swimming with sharks isn’t everything. But the musical shifts the positioning of Vivian’s story — we don’t see it front and center with any real consistency. As written and performed by Karl, Edward is never cold enough to be a shark redeemed. Now he’s simply a man who picks up a hooker.

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Pretty Woman includes several characters who observe and break the fourth wall with abandon, played with great energy and charisma by Eric Anderson. Happy Man knows everyone on the Hollywood street and dispenses life wisdom (he doesn’t exist in the movie); Mr. Thompson knows everyone at the hotel and…well, you get it. The choice to have two wise-men characters unfortunately dissipates the potency of the hotel manager, who, in the film, quietly supports Vivian’s journey from whore to lady. As ongoing shtick, Anderson pops up in two additional roles: a piano player in the hotel bar and an orchestra leader in a scene at the opera. What brandishes charm and fairy-tale coherence in the original story thus devolves into various opportunities to mug for laughs.

Eric Anderson as Happy Man and Orfeh as Kit.
Gregg Barnes’ costumes try to guide us in terms of time and place, but the time and place of this musical seems stubbornly liminal. Streetwalkers dress in an ageless, flashy way, and the upper-class hotel rooms and polo grounds frame costumes of no era: Brooks Brothers is Brooks Brothers is Brooks Brothers. Only once is the show’s timeframe connoted, and it’s quite dramatic: when Edward uses a brick-sized mobile phone, similar to the one famously sported by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Is this meant to slather a Wall Street corporate-raider veneer onto Karl’s never-quite-committed-to-nasty Edward?

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The key challenge of adapting a property from screen to stage is often that the creators must find new angles into the story rather than try to reconstitute cinematic moments that are quickly overwhelmed by the size of the stage. Here, the challenge remain unmet. A selection of Vivian’s dresses seem straight from the film (polka dot at polo match, red for the opera, white for her big shopping day), including a wrongheaded black lace cocktail dress that signals striptease, not Chanel. Other re-stagings of certain sequences (flipping opera glasses, snapping a jewelry case) are so cinematic-close that nothing about them feels new. The late-story plan by Edward’s attorney, Philip (a snide but unthreatening Jason Danieley), to out Vivian and perhaps attack her sexually, falls laughably flat and the character is quickly dispatched. Overall, Pretty Woman is storytelling detritus, and never the right scale for the stage.

The score, by ’80s stalwart Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, is more pop than powerful. One wishes that some of the lush, rousing arrangements and soaring choral moments could take us to a mythic place, that some of the gentle ballads could offer an internal character monologue, but the songs are aggressively generic. Vivian’s big-moment transition ballad, “I Can’t Go Back,” involves the sappy line, “It’s true I sold my body, but I never sold my soul.” It’s intended as a kind of 11 o’clock number, but dramatically it goes to bed early.

Set designer David Rockwell’s pared-down aesthetic allows quick transitions with scaffolds and with lighting by Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg. Here the sensibility creates some memorable scenes: the back of the Hollywood sign that serves as an opening image; a Hollywood Boulevard street scene, crammed with neon signs and painted ads. But this is cinematic replication, too — and it’s swallowed up by the stage of the Nederlander Theatre. Is Pretty Woman meant to be mythical or realistic? I don’t know, but I do know that it isn’t very pretty.