Theatre review: Pretty Woman the Musical

Last night I attended the press opening for Pretty Woman the Musical at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre with actual music and a book that depends heavily on the much-beloved Cinderella-tale film from 1990.

This show has got lots of good stuff. It’s almost there. Just sooooo close. I predict it’s going to close the gap and become a major moneymaker, long before it gets to Broadway.

Good things:

The book is recognizably the same story as the film, with lots of triffic lines lifted therefrom.

Actual songs by actual songwriters, Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.

There’s an extremely strong supporting cast:

The story’s fairy godfather is Thompson the hotel manager, played in the film by Hector Elizondo, and in this production by Eric Anderson. He is responsible for twice rescuing the heroine when the hero lets her down, and of course thus twice rescuing the hero from his own mistakes. He supplies that crucial fulcrum in a story dominated by class issues: the privileged upper servant who always, always knows his place and can use it to smack down the upper-class hero when he screws up, and to grant grace and a leg-up to the gutter-dwelling heroine when she can’t overcome class barriers on her own, all the while irreproachably sticking to his place. Anderson pulls this off.

Allison Blackwell sings a stunning Violetta in the excerpt from Traviata. With Vivian, we are transfixed by the drama and musical power of Blackwell’s performance. She hangs about onstage for much of the show, then gets into her purple dress and–pow!

Orfeh kills the Kit DeLuca role with a grand mezzo voice that adds authority to her world-weary hooker-mentor role. I think she strengthens the film version of Kit.

Spoiler alert: Vivian does not get hit in the eye by the bad guy. She punches him, then kicks him inna fork. I thought this was much more satisfying, and more believable, since Vivian in both film and musical has the 88-inch inseam advantage, and in the film her assailant is only about five feet tall. Also, her powerful resistance supports the story’s girl power theme.

What needs work, then? Some of my issues will work themselves out naturally as the show runs ten or fifteen more performances. Some, I think, the creators will have to address from the top down.

These things will work out with time: The leads seem tentative. While they physically resemble their film counterparts adequately, I’m not asking for that. Both have better than top-quality voices and can sing the parts well … but their hearts aren’t in ’em yet. I would lose the downward-turning caterpillars of Steve Kazee’s moustache, as they obscure what little expression the role allows him to deliver to audiences in the upper balconies. Give him some freedom to emote within the limits of Edward’s tight-ass, stifled life. I would also encourage Samantha Barks to really cut loose on the “Can’t Go Back” number: instead of a grrl-empowered repudiation of her career in prostitution, this song seemed last night more a whine, begging fate not to make her go back. Barks has the pipes to belt defiance to the back row. I’d direct her to do that.

But only the creative team can choose to fix three more things, and I’m betting they will, because these things jumped out at me within the first five minutes.

One, the opening number needs to move later and be cut shorter. The show absolutely has to focus more on Vivian, not secondary characters. We need to know who we’re rooting for and why. Make us fall in love with her first, then do a (shorter) dance number. I know the movie opened like this, and I know the director is a choreographer, and very nice, too, but my heart sank during the first five minutes. I was reminded of Pirate Queen in nervous-making ways.

Two, I didn’t love the chorus’s first costumes, which made it harder to “read” the character of the opening scene. This is a fairy tale, so there’s latitude for a little homogeneity. You don’t want chorus hookers upstaging the two main hookers, wardrobe-wise.

Three and most important, focus on the women. As with The Addams Family Musical, the team is exclusively male, and they’re not leaning into the thing that’s going to sell a ton of tickets: it’s about the women.

Any romance reader will tell you that in a proper genre romance, both hero and heroine start out unworthy to mate, and both must change to become worthy. In this story, the hero is the only one who changes. Vivian’s had bad breaks, but as a human being she’s fine the way she is. If Edward had more personality his journey could upstage Vivian, but he hasn’t; he just has power and money and some too-tightly-expressed kind impulses.

Vivian is the engine driving the story. How people treat her showcases her charm and heroism. Her role model, Kit, matters more to Vivian than Edward matters, at the beginning and at intervals throughout the story. Even Violetta, a tragic walk-on tightly encapsulated in the opera, delivers a punch disproportionate to the size of her role because of the power of her performance and her power to affect Vivian.

Just as Addams Family Musical came alive when it was realized that the story was about Morticia’s midlife crisis, Pretty Woman will come alive when it focuses fully and completely on the women. Women being exploited, women keeping other women down, women empowering other women. Edward is last to the party: we watch him play catch-up, the obligatory white guy whose transformation is a necessary foil to the indomitable heart of the heroine.

This show is going to sell a million tickets to women who for 28 years have been sitting down with their girlfriends, wine, cake, and this movie. They might bring their husbands. But we know who is driving the boat.

If you’ve seen this show, I’d love to read your comments. One woman I sat with last night disagreed with me and defended Edward’s buttoned-down performance by pointing out that he “had to have somewhere to go” as he transformed. Did you see it? What’s your take?

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Theatre review: Pretty Woman the Musical — 11 Comments

  1. Saw it tonight (2nd preview). Agree that the leads are great singers but aren’t completely in the role. Barks has a thankless task trying to be Julia Roberts – the part isn’t currently written in a way that would let another actress step in (like a Mame, or Dolly Levi).

    Completely agree about the opening number – I really liked the Dream number from Act 2 (which I thought was overall much stronger than Act 1) and think they could have moved that to open and then have the Dream theme run through a bit more.

    Loved Violetta and Eric Anderson in his greek chorus type appearance in so many spots and roles.

    What did you think of the dancing at the restaurant? That felt off to me, partly because I know it from the movie so well and learning how to use different utensils isn’t thrilling Broadway musical material.

    I was disappointed by the sets, I expected something more grand for the penthouse suite.

    I also thought the simulated sex was a little too much and they could have ended the scene a little earlier. I’m far from a prude but it was jarring to, in a musical, then see Vivian on her knees unbuckling his belt and opening his pants, similar to him starting to go down on her on top of the piano. Seeing that live feels very different than seeing it in a movie and the musical context just made me cringe imagining a 10 year old would be watching this with their parents.

    I agree with your comments on the women and think that might help out some of the tonality. I did like how much more human Edward appeared.

    How did the Rodeo Drive return scene play last night? The delivery of the “big mistake” line didn’t come out the right way. I was hoping to have a moment where I cheered for her but it didn’t deliver. Similarly I thought when the red dress appears as well as the black dinner dress, she could have made a more remarkable appearance that would have earned some applause from the audience instead of strolling in from the wings.

    The woman sitting next to me, visiting from Nova Scotia, called it “a good local production” at intermission. Act 2 is so much stronger that she was feeling a bit better about it, as was I. I ended Act 1 wondering why I would shell out Broadway ticket money to see a movie I’m perfectly happy with and is on cable every other weekend. Act 2 was a glimpse of what’s possible. The opera sequence was powerful with Violetta between us and Vivian/Edward. Well done.

  2. The second act is where the first act needs to strive to get to. I went last night and the first 40 minutes were sluggish. Voices are great but you can tell people where not comfortable in their roles YET. I loved the opera scene and wild applause followed the number. There were several stand out songs but they need to shorten Act 1 and remove a few numbers so we can get more story line.

    I love seeing previews only because the final version ends up being so tight. I might need to fly to new york to see the final version.

  3. I agree with pretty much everything you said. The supporting cast was marvelous. The ensemble work in this show is what saved it for me. I think the opening and closing numbers both need a lot of work. My heart sank during the opening number and I genuinely thought I wouldn’t enjoy the show. It picks up after Vivian and Edward meet. But slumps again at the end. Edward coming to “rescue” Vivian was absolutely the most lackluster part of the show. There was absolutely no build up and it was completely rushed. I was also disappointed in the music since. Both Kazee and Barks are incredibly talented, but the music in this show does nothing to show what they can do vocally or performance wise.

    I did enjoy Kazee and Bark’s chemistry, but Bark’s character has a much less interesting story arch. Her falling in love with Edward isn’t fully believable. The book needs a lot of work. Especially in the famous movie moments. Every single one of the onstage recreations fell flat and pulled me out of the show. I left wishing I’d just watched the movie.

    I also hated the set design. It was uneven. The set for the poor part of town was beautiful. The rest of the design was just ugly and I really disliked how they used the palm trees.

    • I agree with everything you said. I went to the premiere. I thought Edward was ill near the end of show bc he seemed to get more and more tepid and his performance had almost zero actual movement.

  4. I saw the opening night of the show, which my 22 year old daughter and I enjoyed. I thought the sets needed more. I agree with the comment that the poor section of Hollywood looked better and more glitzy that the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I enjoyed the music and thought the vocal performances were good. My daughter commented that Samantha Barks was outperforming Steve Kazee, but I think it’s because the facial hair hid so much of his emotion. I was in the orchestra section and it was very hard to connect with his emotion, except when he sang. The facial hair hair hid his emotion. The opera scene was amazing, but the “box seats” were too “in the middle” of the stage with the opera all around. Allison Blackwell was STUNNING during the opera scene and the interplay of the opera with the music of this show was fantastic. She is a stunning singer.

    Overall I would give this show high marks and I think it will be interesting to see how it is “finally” staged on Broadway.

  5. We saw the show last night and I agree with many of the comments others have made about it being “almost there”, but not quite. The second act last night was absolutely great, so it gives me hope that the first act can be, too. I can’t wait to see it again after it does!

    Several people have mentioned an imbalance in the performance levels of Steve Kazee and Samantha Barks. I definitely felt their chemistry last night, but I still think Steve should up his energy as the “unenlightened” Edward. I would suggest a little dose of Donald Trump. And Samantha needs to reel in her powerhouse voice a little so there is more nuance to her singing. Her acting was right on last night.

    We all seem to agree that the beginning of the show needs work. The opening number was too big, too frenetic, and not effective in introducing the lead characters. Think about how we could have been drawn in if it had begun with Edward sitting at his piano, singing a beautiful song about loneliness or disappointment (or some other expository topic). Then Vivian climbing out onto her fire escape and singing the same song (while Edward continues to play). Then, still unaware of each other, they sing the song as a duet. Fade to black.

    I think the Hollywood number (maybe pared down a little) would work after that, as would Edward’s scene in his business mogul character. Steve and Samantha are clearly capable of knocking our socks off with a beautiful opening number, kind of as a preamble to the story, and I want to hear it!

    • I agree with you too! Either Steve and Samantha add personality and passion to their characters- make them their own personalities like we saw with Hector who did so much more than just smile or frown- or, at least embellish their performances with a few of the chorus singing right there behind them. When they were on the stage on opposite sides, alone without any props singing, it was not enough to carry those numbers.

  6. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it but then I really didn’t like it. Excellent talent on stage in this production I will say. Sets functional at best. Choreography basic at best. Needs work in many areas in my humble opinion but those who loved the movie it’s safe to say will love the musical.

  7. Jennifer and other posters,
    Thanks so much for posting a review. I plan to go see the play on Broadway later this year and had not seen any reviews yet. I’m not a huge fan of the movie, rather a big Barks fan ever since her 25th- anniversary version of Eponine. As long as I get a song or two from her with the emotional intensity she brought to “On My Own,” or “Still Hurting” I’ll be pretty happy. You think the show will hit that modest bar?

    Robert

    • Unfortunately, with the music, Bark’s vocal talent is not at all demonstrated and was one of the most disappointing parts of the show for me.

      • Becca,
        Thanks for the feedback. That was my fear and first thought when I heard she got the part, will a romantic comedy highlight her emotionally powerful singing.
        Interesting to me that several folks mentioned Steve’s beard doesn’t work. Finny, because if set in the eighties he should not have the beard or mustache, both were way out of favor then.