Can a big, new Broadway show be both a sure thing and a preordained disappointment at the same time? That’s the challenge that Pretty Woman: The Musical faces. In an age characterized, for better or worse, by splashy productions adapted from hit movies (see Mean Girls, Sister Act, School of Rock, et al.), it would be hard to find a bigger no-brainer than Garry Marshall’s 1990 hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold romantic comedy. The audience for the unlikely story of a sassy Hollywood Boulevard streetwalker who moves on up to a suite at the Beverly Wilshire would seem to be built-in and massive. How could it possibly not be a license to print money? And yet…
And yet, there’s no getting around the fact that Pretty Woman was, is, and will always be inextricably associated with one star and one star only – Julia Roberts. She’s any potential Broadway spin-off’s phantom limb. Filling Roberts’ $100-a-night beck-and-call girl stilettos and making folks forget her for two-and-a-half hours would seem to be the most daunting of uphill battles. And that’s not even getting into how the story’s retrograde gender politics will play in the #MeToo era. With that weighty and not-insignificant baggage, Pretty Woman: The Musical now bravely struts its way into the Nederlander Theatre.
First, the good news: If you absolutely adore the film, director Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) has put together a show that will feel instantly familiar. All of the movie’s best scenes are reproduced in Xerox-like fashion (the Rodeo Drive shopping spree, the snap-shut jewelry box gag, etc.). And there’s a reason for that. The show’s book, which is credited to Marshall (who passed away in 2016) and the film’s screenwriter J.F. Lawton, is almost a word-for-word transcription of the movie. It’s the definition of “fan service.” And second, no Broadway show has ever gone wrong by casting Andy Karl. The charismatic and insanely talented thrice-Tony-nominated actor has made a habit of not only shining but soaring in productions like Groundhog Day. He may be the closest thing musical theater has right now to a secret weapon and he was a major “get” for the Richard Gere role of Edward Lewis – the wealthy businessman who sweeps his unlikely Cinderella off of her tired feet.
But the best news of all is just how perfectly (and seamlessly) Samantha Barks steps into Roberts’ shoes. The actress best known from the 2012 Les Miserables film looks and sounds uncannily like Roberts’ Vivian Ward. But this is no mere mimicking act. With her tough-chick exterior hiding her soft, chewy center (not to mention her beautiful singing voice), Barks is likely to make audiences ask: “Julia who?” after the first few scenes. Yes, she’s that good.
There are other bright spots: As Vivian’s gum-snapping best friend on the streets, Kit, the mono-named Orfeh (a Tony nominee for Legally Blonde) knows how to sell Carmela Soprano attitude and can belt her musical numbers until the back row rattles. Eric Anderson steals his scenes as the kind-hearted hotel manager at the Beverly Wilshire (among other hats he wears in the cast). And the sets by David Rockwell have flashes of real sleight-of-hand wit. And yet…
Here comes that “And yet…” again.
And yet, Pretty Woman doesn’t quite work as a musical. Or, at least, not this musical. There are a couple of numbers that work well enough (Barks’ heartfelt “This is My Life,” for example). But overall, the songs by Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) and Jim Vallance feel uninspired, a little cheesy (again, that Bryan Adams), and lifeless — try as they might to rev them up with Bon Jovi-esque guitar power chords. The lyrics can be downright lazy. For the record, any song that contains the line “For the first time I can see…” should be banned from Broadway from this moment into perpetuity.
There’s pleasure to be had at Pretty Woman: The Musical, to be sure. But it’s the pleasure of familiarity, not novelty. Which is a shame because even if one goes into the show with the watered-down expectations they should bring to a screen-to-stage adaptation, there’s enough bubbly, fizzy energy in the first act to make you sit up and go: “Hey, this is better than I expected!” But the full-of-filler second act is deadly and drawn out. If Act 1 is like a frosty flute of Champagne, Act 2 is what happens when that Champagne is left lying around too long and goes flat.
I want to be clear: Pretty Woman will sell a lot of tickets and make a ton of money. It will confirm Karl’s undimmable star power. And if there’s any justice, it will make Barks one too and lead to many more starring roles. But the show is too faithful, too on-the-nose. There’s something missing. Oddly enough, it may not be Julia Roberts, but it’s something even more important in the end – magic. B-