Samantha Barks and Andy Karl re-create the characters originated onscreen by Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in the stage adaptation the Garry Marshall rom-com, with songs by Bryan Adams.
End--the-'80s nostalgia rules at the Nederlander Theatre, where the cut-and-paste musical version 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" a corporate raider. True to the famous closing scene that launched a squillion swoons, he rescues her and "she rescues him right back."
While the creative team strains a tad too diligently to give the female lead agency and sidestep the Cinderella story's awkward sexual politics, the show is best appreciated as a retro pleasure, guilty or not, and robust box fice in previews suggests that audiences are eager to succumb to its charms.
Sure, people will continue to take issue with its mixed message female self-realization hitched to an inherently exploitative pression sugarcoated by ensuring that the sex worker remains in charge. And there's something inescapably queasy about a woman perceived as low-class trash who gets her revenge against the snooty shopgirls that discriminate against her by flashing pricey merchandise purchased with the credit card the rich guy paying for her services. But anyone looking to get lathered up over gender stereotypes is at the wrong show. Pretty Woman has always been a contemporary fairy tale about an emotionally lost prince as much in need saving as the princess who struts into his life in patent-leather thigh-highs. It's a romantic fantasy in which shopping and a high-end makeover are stepping-stones to deliverance, the ultimate success story the aspirational '80s.
Marshall first began developing a stage version in 2001 but it stalled until 2014, when he and the film's screenwriter, J.F Lawton, began shopping the project to various composer-lyricists and theater directors, backed by producer Paula Wagner. In addition to Adams and Vallance, who brought proven songwriting skills that capture the era — the show is set in Hollywood, "Once Upon a Time in the 1980s" — director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell came on board, working on the musical with Marshall for more than a year before the latter's death in 2016.
Much the show plays like a scene-for-scene facsimile the movie, right down to large chunks dialogue and the iconic outfits worn by Barks as Vin Ward, both pre- and post-cleanup. That means its chief reason to exist is as a nostalgia exercise, not a fresh entertainment in its own right. The songs are almost superfluous. But judging by the teary sighs, laughs and cheers recognition, moist-eyed nostalgia appears to be exactly what the audience wants.
New York wheeler-dealer Edward Lewis (a dapper Andy Karl) is in Los Angeles to close a billion-dollar deal to buy up a vulnerable shipping company then break it down and sell f the assets. After he bumps into Vin while seeking directions back to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he figures he'll need a trouble-free companion for the intensive week he's in town, locking in an all-inclusive fee much as he would any other transaction. But mutual feelings develop, strengthening Vin's resolve to steer herself onto a better life track and stening Edward's ruthless business instincts, putting him in the unaccustomed position wanting to help rather than devour his intended target.
The story is formulaic cotton candy, but the combination warmly drawn characters with persuasive chemistry and fun fish-out--water elements that put a contemporary gloss on a transformation out Pygmalion made the movie irresistible. The stage iteration is no different, getting you in Vin's corner by having her open up early about wanting to get out prostitution.
The posters lining the theater lobby proclaiming, "Smart Woman," "Strong Woman," "Funny Woman," "Fierce Woman," "Bold Woman," verge on Time's Up overkill. But the slight adjustment that has Vin capably defending herself from the aggressive advances Edward's slimeball lawyer Stuckey (Jason Danieley, unable to do much with a thankless part) makes her less dependent on the traditional chivalrous knight for protection. Even Vin's role as a positive influence for change in Edward has been fortified from the movie, making this a two-way exchange even if it incontrovertibly starts on unequal footing.
Barks, a Brit best known as Eponine in the Les Miserables film, makes a sensational Broadway debut. Her characterization is perhaps a tiny bit more sanitized than that Roberts, what with the latter's coltish physical command and intoxicating smile, but Barks brings pluckiness, grit, self-possession and sensitivity; she has a rich, expressive voice and strikes a lovely balance between the gangly tomboy and the graceful gazelle that helps sell the essential sense a pure heart, untarnished by the degradations the boulevard. You find yourself beaming with vicarious pleasure every time she emerges resplendent in some chic new outfit, re-created by costumer Gregg Barnes with a readily acknowledged debt to the movie.
That said, Vin probably could have done without the blunt literalness lyrics by Adams and Vallance like: "It's true, I sold my body/ But I never sold my soul/ I've learned I don't need anyone/ It's me who's in control." All that is there in Barks' captivating performance, without the need to spell it out.
Karl is one Broadway's most charismatic leading men; he sings and moves with confidence, and from the start shows glimpses the tenderness toward Vin that will gradually sneak up and catch him by surprise. But the male lead is definitely the second banana here, and Karl is perhaps inhibited from putting his distinctive stamp on the role by the distracting choice to have him do what's pretty much an impersonation composer Adams' signature raspy vocal style. This is most unfortunate in the classic opera scene — The red dress! The necklace! The snap-shut joke with the jewelry case! — when Edward cuts into snippets from Verdi's La Trata with "You and I," in which he croons, "Darlin' you look beautiful tonight/ I can't remember ever seeing anything so right." It's not quite as cheesy as some Adams' more syrupy ballads (the Barbra Streisand duet, "I Finally Found Someone," tops that list), but it's close.
Most the songs, however, are tunefully easy on the ear and skillful enough at exploring the characters' feelings. The best are Vin and Edward's respective establishing numbers, "Anywhere But Here" and "Something About Her," as well as Vin's melancholy confessional "This Is My Life." All have been given appealingly mellow '80s-style instrumentation from orchestrator Will Van Dyke, ten enhanced by a gentle country flavor.
Some the splashier numbers go to the chief scene-stealer in the cast, Eric Anderson, who multitasks with amiable assurance as the "Happy Man," a colorfully dressed street hustler hawking maps to the stars' homes on Hollywood Boulevard; the Beverly Wilshire manager Mr. Thompson, who becomes a kind fairy godfather to Vin's Cinderella (the priceless Hector Elizondo in the movie); and a nightclub singer. Those personae effectively merge in the segue from "On a Night Like Tonight" into "Don't Forget to Dance," a sequence that is more or less this show's counterpart to the Embassy Ball in My Fair Lady.
Mitchell's choreography in that scene, blending elegant ballroom with Vin's contagiously explosive gyrations, is more enjoyable than in the brassy "Rodeo Drive." That celebration '80s extravagance just comes f as loud and vulgar, with too little to distinguish the preening fashionistas' moves from those the sashaying hookers earlier. Maybe that's the point? In any case, it doesn't help that Barnes has outfitted the male chorus here like S&M Versace mannequins.
The song is saved somewhat by the powerhouse lungs and large personality to match Orfeh as Vin's friend and protector Kit De Luca, leaning hard into the stereotypical seasoned hooker with the heart gold. The most notable departure here from the film script is the chosen career path for Kit's possible exit out prostitution. A number the affectionate sisterhood scenes between Vin and Kit are shared with gusto by Tommy Bracco, a diminutive but dynamic mover who plays an amusingly curious hotel bellhop as well as participating in the ensemble dance numbers in various guises.
Of those numbers, the biggest miss is the second-act opener, "Welcome to Our World (More Champagne)," a parade noxious rich folks toasting their fabulousness, which lacks the wit or visual panache another corresponding My Fair Lady set piece, "The Ascot Gavotte." Class differences are an integral part the story, but hitting them on the nose like this with a polo mallet just seems stale.
Working on David Rockwell's versatile architectural set design — complete with the requisite fire escape and ornate Beverly Wilshire entrance — Mitchell moves the story along at a sustained pace if not a great deal imagination. He gives the intimate scenes room to breathe and allows Vin's moments triumph or joy, large or small, to resonate, encouraging us to participate directly in her breakthroughs, setbacks and resilient self-determination. If the absence is felt one indelible part the movie, Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman" (a rights issue or a choice?), the essence what made it such a hit survives in Barks' winning performance.
Venue: Nederlander Theatre, New York
Cast: Samantha Barks, Andy Karl, Orfeh, Eric Anderson, Jason Danieley, Ezra Knight, Allison Blackwell, Tommy Bracco, Brian Cali, Robby Clater, Anna Ellinsfeld, Lauren Lim Jackson, Renee Marino, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Jillian Mueller, Jake Odmark, Jennifer Sanchez, Matthew Stocke, Alex Mitchell Stoll, Alan Wiggins, Darius Wright
Director-choreographer: Jerry Mitchell
Book: Garry Marshall, J.F. Lawton, based on the Touchstone Pictures movie written by J.F. Lawton
Music & lyrics: Bryan Adams, Jim Vallance
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designers: Kenneth Posner, Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound designer: John Shivers
Music supervisor, arrangements and orchestrations: Will Van Dyke
Executive producers: Wendy Orshan, Jeffrey M. Wilson
Presented by Paula Wagner, Nice Productions, LPO, New Regency Productions, Caiola Productions & Co., James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Hunter Arnold, Graham Burke, Edward Walson, deRoy Kierstead, Michael Cassel Group, Stage Entertainment, Ambassador Theatre Group, John Gore Organization
This article originally appeared on The Hollywood Reporter.