Theater review by Adam Feldman
Are you longing to see a witty, complex Broadway musical about a lovely but rough-edged young woman from the streets who is swept up by a wealthy but distant older man, tutored in the ways of high society, swathed in expensive clothing and then left to wonder how she could return to the life she once led? If so, you’re in luck: That show exists and is called My Fair Lady. Also currently on Broadway is Pretty Woman, a tawdry 1980s gloss on the same Pygmalion myth, adapted from the hit rom-com about a prostitute who is Julia Roberts and who is hired for a week of sex and shopping with a handsome corporate raider who is Richard Gere. This latter musical—let’s call it My Fare Lady—is mostly just a dutiful replica of the movie, except when it stops to make way for new songs, by period rocker Bryan Adams and his writing partner Jim Vallance, that raise the eternal question: Tell me, have you ever really, really, really ever bought a woman?
Pretty Woman has a patina of fairy-tale romance, but its true love is conspicuous consumerism; in the Act I finale, our heroine, Vivian (Samantha Barks), enjoys the kind of joyful self-actualization that can only come from a spending spree. Minimally adapted by the film’s director (the late Garry Marshall) and screenwriter (J.F. Lawton), the show makes a few grudging tweaks to its source to accommodate modern sensibilities—Vivian no longer gets punched in the face—but otherwise cleaves closely to the original script, reproducing nearly every well-known line in roughly the same order. The musical’s creators, including director Jerry Mitchell, know what they think they are selling: a sure thing. Even Roberts’s signature costumes are copied, and sometimes presented for entrance applause. Not only does this approach miss an opportunity to rethink the story’s sugar-daddy fantasy in a deeper way, it also gets stale fast; this ain’t our first time on Rodeo Drive.
Given Pretty Woman’s discomfiting subject matter (the first act of this romance includes two fade-outs on paid oral sex!), it might have been smart to hire a woman to write the score, or at least someone with experience in musical theater. Adams and Vallance’s music does its job, but has a Broadway show ever had lyrics so utterly, almost senselessly generic? Watching Vivian on a night at the opera, the suave and sophisticated Edward (Andy Karl, using a hint of Adams’s growl) is forced to sing: “I love the way you feel when you’re near / If I could be anywhere I’d wanna be right here / Let’s never let it end / I could spend forever in your arms.” Later, there is this: “Together forever—you and me / We’re gonna make it somehow / Together forever—finally free / And all our tomorrows start now.” The songs don't just fail to heighten key moments; they grind those moments into mush.
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.
Nederlander Theatre (Broadway). Book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton. Music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Dir. Jerry Mitchell. With Samantha Barks, Andy Karl.