Friday, May 17, 2019

Not So Pretty Woman

I’ve been griping for quite a while about how Broadway has taken to musicalizing hit movies in hopes of luring in tourists trolling for entertainment on the Great White Way. Legally Blonde, which ran on Broadway for almost 600 performances and was nominated for 7 Tonys in 2007, has always been my go-to example, but I don’t claim to have seen it. Possibly it’s a deft translation of a breezy cinematic hit into a tuneful Broadway delight, but I wouldn’t know. I do know this—the new Broadway version of  the 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere hit, Pretty Woman, is a giant dud. (Funny thing, though: the audience doesn’t seem to notice.)

Pretty Woman, of course, is a classic updated Cinderella fable (hooker marries prince). Though it is set in the seamy world of corporate raiders and Hollywood Boulevard sex workers, its characters manage to appear squeaky clean, to the point where I’m told that some little girls aspire to grow up to be a streetwalker-turned-princess like Roberts’ Vivian (ugh). But setting aside the unseemliness of the concept, it’s possible to enjoy the confluence of Roberts’ exuberance and Gere’s cool intellect as they break down one another’s emotional barriers. I don’t fault the stage actors who have taken on these roles. Samantha Barks, who played the tragic Eponine in the filmed Les Misérables, and Andy Karl, a Broadway favorite for such shows as Groundhog Day, are strong singers, and they’re clearly trying hard to sell their characters to the audience. One  problem is that Karl is given little to work with; he’s nothing more than a good-looking cipher. And Barks simply is not Julia Roberts. In fact, the two performances that really give this show a lift are much-expanded versions of movie characters. Eric Anderson scores in the dual role of the twinkle-toed hotel manager (think of  a singing and dancing Hector Elizondo) and the so-called Happy Man welcoming us all to dream big on Hollywood Boulevard. And the single-named Orfeh has appeal in a raucous turn as Vivian’s hooker pal.

I’ve mentioned singing and dancing, and of course any Broadway musical depends on the potency of its music. Here’s where Pretty Woman: The Musical really sags. Its score is by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime writing partner, and I frankly can’t hum a single tune. Most egregious for me were clunky ballads dependent on June/moon kinds of rhymes; there’s precious little wit, but lots of power-balladeering about not being happy in your world and needing to find out where you really belong. The big finale song is called “Together Forever,” and contains every musical cliché you can think of. There are a lot of talented songwriters out there, but Adams and partner Jim Vallance (despite Adams’ three Oscar nominations) hardly belong on this list.

Maybe the reason that audiences (though not Tony voters) are happy with this show is that it does its best to be a carbon copy of the movie original. Remember Julia Roberts, in blonde wig, short shorts, and thigh-high vinyl boots, introduced while shimmying down a fire escape to avoid her Hollywood landlord? The musical has this identical scene. Ditto fun in a Jacuzzi, sex on a grand piano, a quarrel on a polo field, a fabulous red gown for a night at the opera.  Movie fans still talk about a moment wherein Gere snaps shut a jewel case containing a fabulous necklace, prompting from Roberts a delighted guffaw. I’m told this was a spontaneous reaction from Roberts; it’s not so much fun when reproduced nightly on the Nederlander stage. 

The Broadway version 

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