Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through April 15
By ANNE SPISELMAN
There’s an arresting scene in the middle of the second act of the pre-Broadway world premiere of “Pretty Woman: The Musical” at the Oriental Theatre that suggests how good this show could be with more imagination and less reliance on predictable tropes.
Edward Lewis (Steve Kazee), the filthy rich corporate raider on business in Los Angeles, takes Vivian Ward (Samantha Barks), the hooker he’s hired for a week, to see “La Traviata,” but instead of jetting off to the San Francisco Opera in his private plane as in the 1990 film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, they ascend a few steps to an ornate theater box (scenic design by David Rockwell), and the opera characters swirl around them led by Allison Blackwell as the heroine Violetta. Then the same formally clad actors (costumes by Gregg Barnes) morph into guests at the opera gala with Edward and Vivian, in a stunning red gown, standing out among them as we recognize that they have fallen in love.
The staging not only is imaginative, it also gets around the logistical problem of the plane ride and change of city. At the same time, it hints at some of the show’s flaws. Most obviously, the audience has to know that “La Traviata” is about a prostitute who falls in love with a wealthy man to understand its meaning for Vivian, though how moved she is isn’t quite as evident as it could be. More disturbingly, Verdi’s soaring music and Blackwell’s wonderful singing are juxtaposed with Edward’s “You and I,” a love song that sounds flat by comparison.
In general, the music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallence seem generic and over the place, and the small orchestra tends to be too loud and heavy on percussion. The songs range from the amped-up (way up!) rock ‘n’ roll-inspired numbers, peppered with a bit of hip-hop and rap, for the street people of Hollywood Boulevard, starting with the long opener “Welcome to Hollywood,” to several Country Western ballads nicely interpreted by Kazee (who, not surprisingly, played Guy in “Once”). Vivian gets a variety of ballads and anthems–”Anywhere But Here,” “This Is My Life,” “I Can’t Go Back”–which begin to sound similar, and Barks belts them out with unmitigated energy and crescendos at the end of each. Spirited choreography by director Jerry Mitchell augments selections such as the tango-inspired “On A Night Like Tonight” and the self-consciously inspiring “Never Give Up On A Dream,” but some of it looked a little ragged on opening night.
The book by Garry Marshall, who directed the film, and J.F. Lawton, who wrote the screenplay, more-or-less follows the movie, with tweaks mostly to facilitate efficient staging. We don’t see the Lotus Esprit Edward borrows from his lawyer Philip Stuckey (Jason Danieley, suitably smarmy), for example; instead, he’s on the street asking for directions when Vivian accosts him. It’s also not completely clear, at least initially, that he hires her as an escort for business functions because his girlfriend refused to accompany him and was offended at being his “beck and call girl.” Edward’s penthouse suite at the Regent Beverly Wiltshire Hotel isn’t as luxurious as it should be, either, because it has to break apart and disappear for scene changes.
On the other hand, the creators and talented ensemble handle some things with aplomb. Our way into the story is the narrator-like Happy Man, played by an animated Eric Anderson, who switches in an instant from handing out travel brochures on Hollywood Boulevard in a tattered coat to being the hotel’s oh-so-proper manager Mr. Thompson in a trim dark-green uniform. The trip from hotel lobby to penthouse uses an amusing twist on an elevator, and scenes like the one on Rodeo Drive benefit from inventive details.
While the leads come close to being as engaging their movie counterparts—I especially appreciated Kazee’s low-key Edward—some of the actors deliberately push their roles over the top, among the Orfeh as Vivian’s hooker-mentor Kit DeLuca. The opening night audience loved this, but I’m not sure it will go over well on Broadway.
In fact, I feel skeptical about the whole enterprise. My test for a stage musical based on a nonmusical movie is whether or not it improves on the original. “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” doesn’t have really memorable songs, sensational acting, or stunning staging, nor does it break any new ground. Then, again, everybody loves a Cinderella story, so maybe it will be a hit, say, for date night.