Pretty Woman, the 1990 film that married the story of Pygmalion to the annoying trope of the 'hooker with a heart of gold,' has found its way to Broadway in a musical that aims high but falls short of the mark. Burdened by a lackluster score by Bryan Adams, whose style is more suited to country/pop than the stage, Pretty Woman: The Musical is what you get when bad music happens to good singers.
Vivian Ward (Samantha Barks), a prostitute one can never imagine actually turning a trick, picks up Edward Lewis (Andy Karl), a disaffected, ruthless corporate raider, turning his life upside down and reinventing herself in the process. A sympathetic hotel manager, Mr. Thompson (Eric Anderson) and adoring bellhop Giulio (Tommy Bracco) buoy her through her transformation. Fending off the unwanted advances of Edward's creepy business partner Philip Stuckey (Jason Daniely), Vivian realizes she deserves better and resolves to move on.
Even with its flimsy story and inconsistent score, this show has something any creative team would kill for -- the dazzling Samantha Barks. In her, this Pretty Woman has a leading lady with sparkling charm, a gorgeous face and figure, and an amazing voice. Barks is much, much more than pretty. She is magic.
They are also lucky to have Andy Karl. He has the kind of charisma money cannot buy. Alas, in the underdeveloped character of conflicted arbitrageur, Karl is utterly wasted. He is the kind of performer you build a show around, not one you shoehorn into a dull role. I know Karl is a replacement for a previous actor but they should have rewritten the role to suit his gifts.
Orfeh as Vivian's sidekick Kit makes as much as she can of an underwritten character, powering her way across the stage with an incredible belt voice. In the role of Mr. Thompson and his surprise alter ego, Eric Anderson commits fully, but underwhelms.
Elegant and very believable as the dignified factory owner about to lose his shirt, Ezra Knight as James Morse provides one of the evening’s best moments when he teaches Vivian to dance. And then of course there is the dynamic, scene stealing, adorable Tommy Bracco as the bellhop who really hops to. If NASA ever runs out of rocket fuel, they should just call him.
Some of the tunes have a decent hook, but none of them ever really hits home. The musical eventually finds its emotional center late in Act II, when Karl and Barks duet on a bare stage. As she does throughout the show, Barks effortlessly hits the back of the house, while we finally get a glimpse of the real Andy Karl. Unencumbered by clunky dialogue and stifling narrative, Karl has the chance to give freer (but not full) rein to his voice and acting ability.
Gregg Barnes' costumes are colorful, fun and beautifully executed. I do wish Vivian’s transformation outfit had more pizzazz, but the iconic red dress is a smash. I also wish the set had a little more substance. Then again, the contrast between the lively, almost lush setting of the rough streets and the antiseptic barrenness of the supposedly opulent hotel does create a striking metaphor.
Director and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell faithfully recreates the film, adding a few touches of his own. I particularly appreciate his nod to the Ascot number from Pretty Woman’s theatrical predecessor, My Fair Lady. Mitchell also handles the intimate scenes with just the right humor, decorum and passion, approaching the unfolding love story without hitting us over the head. He does his best to enliven the stage by keeping the excellent chorus dancing almost constantly -- a necessity when the music is so banal.
Pretty Woman has been sold as a modern Cinderella story, but in truth it has much more in common with Romeo and Juliet, complete with balcony scene. Economic status replaces family animosity as the barrier that stands between them; one they breach through sex, and, in time, love. No, this is not Cinderella. Vivian is no weak sister waiting to be saved; she makes her own way, just as Edward does. They are drawn to each other by their mutual need. Both are engaged in different kinds of prostitution and both seek redemption. Vivian has a soul and little money; Edward has lots of money but no soul. It is a match made in Hollywood heaven.
Despite its flaws, Pretty Woman: The Musical does have appeal, in the energetic individuality of its chorus members and supporting players, and the truly stellar performance of Samantha Barks.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)
What the popular press says...
"Let me make it clear that I mean no disrespect to Ms. Barks when I say that she is not Julia Roberts. Best known for playing the waifish Éponine in the movie musical Les Misérables, Ms. Barks is clearly a talented singer and actress. But being used as a paper doll for Gregg Barnes’s “I Love Julia” costumes, while speaking verbatim Ms. Roberts’s lines from the film, she has been given no chance to banish stardust memories of the woman who created her part. Directed and choreographed as if on automatic pilot by Jerry Mitchell, Pretty Woman: The Musical has a book by the original film's director, Garry Marshall (who died in 2016), and screenwriter, J.F. Lawton, with songs by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Its creators have hewed suffocatingly close to the film’s story, gags and dialogue."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The cast makes the most of what Pretty Woman allows them. The winsome Barks, who played Éponine in the movie Les Misérables, sings very well and has a believable connection with Karl, who undersells his sexiness wisely. Orfeh provides sass and power vocals as Vivian’s best friend, Jason Danieley is a solidly smarmy villain, and Eric Anderson injects humor and showmanship into his dual roles as a street-singing narrator and a benevolent hotel manager. But although it is capably staged, the show has no reason to exist beyond, one assumes, a desire to make money by pimping out a familiar property. Broadway can do better than the same old tricks."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"In truth, the singing is all well and good, but considering the evolution of gender politics over the last 30 years, Pretty Woman today comes off pretty tone deaf."
Roma Torre for NY1
"End-of-the-'80s nostalgia rules at the Nederlander Theatre, where the cut-and-paste musical version of Garry Marshall's 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman, is re-creating the cultural-touchstone movie beat for beat, set to a score by Bryan Adams and songwriting partner Jim Vallance that could easily pass for vintage FM-radio pop-rock singles. Just as the film was a stellar vehicle for Julia Roberts, the musical showcases a radiant performance from Samantha Barks as the Hollywood Boulevard prostitute that becomes the "beck and call girl" of a corporate raider. True to the famous closing scene that launched a squillion swoons, he rescues her and "she rescues him right back.""
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"With anything mature or sensual systematically removed, Pretty Woman: The Musical goes all-in on fantasy, casting two sizzling talents, Samantha Barks and Andy Karl, as bland, pretty people singing pretty Bryan Adams-Jim Vallance tunes with nothing much at stake. Stubbornly inconsequential, it’s a morally uplifting fairy tale of which everyone, young and old alike, can be skeptical."
Bob Verini for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...