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.
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?