A fine romance blooms in the arid garden that is Pretty Woman: The Musical. Not the one involving sleek billionaire Edward Lewis’ leveraged buyout of Hollywood Boulevard streetwalker Vivian Ward. No, the unexpected sparks fly when Vivian places herself in the reassuring hands of Mr. Thompson, manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He offers her a quick, dreamy dance tutorial, as if to slap a fresh coat of paint over her distressed goods. A song ensues (“On a Night Like Tonight”) that reveals a flash of almost tender comedic warmth, passing more quickly than a Perseid shower above the otherwise rancid hostile takeover passing for a new Broadway musical below.
How rancid? What to make of an early scene in Edward’s penthouse suite at the aforementioned hotel when Vivian grabs the velvet cushion from a piano bench to use as a knee-pad, the better to fellate her prince? Or Edward’s post-servicing number (“Something About Her”) in which he confesses he’s now charmed and confused about her? Wait, what?
Well she does, after all, know a great deal more than him about the Lotus 400 series. This adds a dash of My Cousin Vinnie-style female agency to this doggedly by-the-numbers adaptation of the 1990 romantic comedy that made Julia Roberts a star and certified Richard Gere’s status as one.
No such stardust glitters here. The two leads – Samantha Barks as Vivian and Andy Karl as Edward – exhibit zero chemistry and are vocally ill-matched, and that’s the least of the show’s problems. With a thumpy book by J.F. Lawton and the late Garry Marshall (who also directed the film) and loud but forgettable score by rockers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, the skeleton has been erected by a team that knows nothing about musicals. The genre pop songs are belted, one after another, to the nosebleeds and dissipate into the ether. David Rockwell’s tacky cutout sets appear to have been designed to accommodate a bus-and-truck tour. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are the show’s sole ongoing delight, flattering the women even in their garishness.
Nothing in Jerry Mitchell’s atypically meager vocabulary as director and choreographer suggests more than a glossing engagement with the material. And no wonder. There’s not a moment’s spark of originality evident over the show’s two and a half hours.
That makes it hard to fault the game leads. The talented Karl has made a career of these misguided ventures (Rocky, the somewhat better Groundhog Day and now this). He all but signals disbelief in the dumb lyrics and dialogue coming out of his mouth. Barks, who played Eponine in the film Les Misérables, seems to have walked over from America’s Got Talent. At this point in her career, she’s a power-belter prone to shrieking, while posing as if for a fashion magazine cover shoot. She doesn’t need to be Julia Roberts, but does need to do more than smile and holler.
That leaves us in the hands of the secondary characters, who do offer some moments of respite. Eric Anderson multitasks as an unnecessary narrator and then as Mr. Thompson, the role played so elegantly in the film by Hector Elizondo. As Vivian’s street mentor and pal Kit, Orfeh really shows how it’s done. She belts, yes, but in a lower register and with endearing grit (though it admittedly is a bit weirding-out to see her urging Barks into bed with Karl, her real-life husband).
The fine Jason Danieley acquits himself honorably in the awful role of Edward’s lawyer, played in the film with cringe-inducing sleaziness by Jason Alexander. And Brian Calì and Allison Blackwell nearly walk off with the show during a shallow dive into La Traviata. Uh-oh. Is Verdi next on the Broadway dartboard? I’ll wait for My Cousin Vinny.