Thursday, March 15, 2018

Straight From the Heart: At First Glance, Musical 'Pretty Woman' Is Appealing But Not Ravishing -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Pretty Woman: The Musical
a world premiere musical
with original songs by Bryan Adams & Jim Vallance
directed by Jerry Mitchell
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 15

(Note: Seen at the first preview performance, as a paid attendee and longtime Broadway in Chicago subscriber.)

Although it doesn't strike me as a screen-to-stage adaptation that absolutely needed to get made, at face value Pretty Woman:The Musical would seem to have a lot going for it.

The 1990 movie starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere made the former a superstar while grossing nearly a half-billion dollars worldwide.

I happened to be living in Los Angeles--where the film is set--when it was released, and though I haven't re-watched the movie often, I remember it and the surrounding hoopla fondly.

The cast for the musical, which is being promoted as a "Pre-Broadway World Premiere" is stocked with first-rate talent, including--in the Roberts role of Vivian--Samantha Barks, best-known for playing Eponine in the film version of Les Misérables.

Steve Kazee, who won the 2012 Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Musical for his performance in Once, plays Edward Lewis as Gere did onscreen. And supporting cast members Orfeh, Jason Danieley, Eric Anderson and Kingsley Leggs also have impressive Broadway credits.

Writing the music and lyrics are rock star Bryan Adams and his longtime collaborator, Jim Vallance. Though Adams hasn't recorded much that has caught my ear since the 1980s, I was once a pretty avid fan. And he has supposedly sold over 75 million albums throughout his career.

The musical's book is credited to the Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, the film's director and screenwriter, respectively. (Marshall passed in 2016.)

And perhaps most fueling my reasonably high expectations upon entering the Oriental Theatre for Pretty Woman's first public performance (officially a preview) on Tuesday night is that the musical was largely developed by its director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell.

He had done likewise with the musical versions of Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots and On Your Feet, all of which I've terrifically enjoyed.

In 2012, I had likewise seen Kinky Boots in its very first public performance, also as a pre-Broadway Chicago tryout, and I was largely dazzled (as I wrote here).

While that show was similarly written by an '80s pop star taking a first stab at composing for the theater--Cyndi Lauper--the score and the whole affair got things a bit more right than Pretty Woman, although I liked the new show well more than I didn't.

Kinky Boots is also a musical based on a movie, but a little-known British film rather than one of the more iconic romantic comedies ever. And while Pretty Woman is considerably better than the stage version of Ghost, I don't perceive many finding the musical more beguiling than the original film.

Yet while Samantha Barks isn't Julia Roberts, she is "pretty" outstanding here. With many stage credits along with the Les Miz movie gig, she in herself is good reason to see this initial rendition of Pretty Woman.

After the opening group number, "Welcome to Hollywood," Barks belts out the poignant "Anywhere But Here" in a way that not only reminded of her stellar take on "On My Own" in Les Miz, but had me whispering to my pal Paolo in our seats near the top of the balcony, "She has one of those seemingly effortless, Broadway-caliber voices."

Persona wise, I found Kazee a tad bland--though that's kind of what the part of Edward's initially soulless financier calls for--but he too has a terrific voice, as demonstrated early on "Something About Her."

Albeit with some refinements, the musical hews pretty closely to the movie, so I don't feel a detailed description is necessary.

But as a rough outline, Vivian is a Hollywood hooker and roommates with her colleague, Kit (Orfeh, who I recalled fondly from Legally Blonde's original cast and is good here as well).

Through more of a chance encounter than a solicited one, Edward winds up taking Vivian to his penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, managed by the prim-but-sympathetic Mr. Thompson (Eric Anderson).

Personal growth accompanies Vivian and Edward's evolving bond over the course of a week, as do trips to snotty Rodeo Drive boutiques and corporate takeover plans steered by Edward's loathsome lawyer, Philip (Broadway's fine Jason Danieley in the Jason Alexander movie role).

Though some may find even his best songs a bit cheesy--as I do his monster hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It For You)"--I genuinely like Bryan Adams songs such as "Cut Like a Knife," "Lonely Nights," "This Time," "Somebody," "Heaven," "Straight From the Heart" and "Summer of '69." (Despite my headline reference, none of his catalog material is employed in this show.)

Yet while Lauper, Sting on The Last Ship and other rock vets have acclimated well to the musical theater idiom, the music and lyrics of great Broadway songs often feature nifty rhymes, insightful storytelling, overt catchiness, subtle charms and/or sly humor that demand a deftness even venerated pop hitmakers may not bring.

While all of Adams & Vallance's songs here are serviceable, and some rather enjoyable, on a first exposure I couldn't call any phenomenal--in either a rock 'n roll or Broadway sense.

Barks still manages to dazzle on "Look at Me Now" and "This is My Life," while "On a Night Like
Tonight" is a fun, dance-infused showcase number for Anderson as Mr. Thompson.

But Act I closer "You're Beautiful" is far too hammer-meets-nail than it should be, and Vivian's emotionally rousing "I Can't Go Back" feels like a hackneyed, second-rate '80s album cut.

Also, for a show en route to Broadway, the set pieces seem rather chintzy.

I know the era of Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables grandiosity is long over, but the scenery here feels already downsized for when this show gets to the in-the-round Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire in about a decade.

All this said, nothing about Pretty Woman: The Musical is awful, and pre-Broadway world premieres that opt to try out in Chicago should be cheered just on principle.

It wouldn't be crazy to think Barks could win a Tony Award for this role, and to see such talent on display elevates the material and makes for an entertaining evening.

Thanks to the leading lady, along with the estimable abilities of many in the cast and crew, this stage version of Pretty Woman merits you taking a look.

But--unlike shows that instantly inspire me to look forward to seeing them again--probably not a second glance. 

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