I was unsure exactly what to expect going into PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL, but I knew that I was excited to see Samantha Barks make her Chicago theater debut in this pre-Broadway try out. I was not disappointed. Barks’s performance as Hollywood Boulevard street walker Vivian Ward, made famous by Julia Roberts in the 1990 film, exudes radiance and effortless command. Barks has a thrillingly magnetic presence as Vivian. She nails the character’s signature charm and candor, and Barks elevates those qualities further with her winsome delivery. Of course, she is also an outstanding vocalist and milks many of PRETTY WOMAN’S mostly bland lyrics for all they are worth. If you’re a fan of the original film and are looking to see a star turn, PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL has those areas covered in spades. Barks’s performance is by far the most compelling reason to see this entertaining—though uneven—new musical.
Casting-wise, Barks is in good company. As Edward, Steve Kazee sings like a dream, and his folksy rock vocal quality fits the role nicely. Kazee has a tough time matching Barks’s infectious energy, though, and he lacks the same level of presence she has on the stage. These two actors harmonize beautifully, however, and make us root for them as a couple. Orfeh, always welcome on the stage, demonstrates her powerhouse vocals in the role of Vivian’s best friend, Kit. Eric Anderson does strong comedic work in the dual roles of Happy Man and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s manager Mr. Thompson. On the whole, the ensemble nails director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s polished and lively dance moves, and they bring tons of energy.
Though the cast is consistently excellent and though the musical nicely captures the essence of its source material, PRETTY WOMAN needs some revision before it makes its way to Broadway. The book by J.F. Lawton and the late writer-director Garry Marshall lifts many iconic moments from the film and translates them directly to the stage. Consequently, almost all of the musical numbers feel shoehorned into the show. Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance have composed a thoroughly enjoyable pop rock musical score, but their lyrics are mostly clunky and the rhyme scheme feels elementary.
Because the dialogue and the musical numbers feel separate from one another, many of PRETTY WOMAN’s lyrics right now feel generic. The opening number “Welcome to Hollywood” has a lively energy, though it feels out of place. So too does the show’s Act One finale “You’re Beautiful,” which expands Vivian’s iconic shopping adventure on Rodeo Drive into a razzle dazzle scene. Vivian does sing some fittingly lovely numbers that embody her character’s hopes after she enters into Edward’s glamorous world. Edward’s songs, however, are definitely the weakest in the show. His character’s oft-repeated theme “Freedom” feels like it could be plugged into a number of other shows. For PRETTY WOMAN to work narrative-wise, Adams and Vallance need to find the specificity in the characters and reflect that more in the lyrics.
Still, PRETTY WOMAN is enjoyable—first and foremost because of Barks’s magnificent take on Vivian, but also because it is visually splendid. Mitchell’s choreography is well-executed and energetic, though his staging of the show’s many ballads feels stilted. David Rockwell’s set marvelously captures the glitz and glam of Vivian and Edward’s adventures in Beverly Hills, while nicely contrasting that with the grittier world from which Vivian comes. Gregg Barnes’s costumes are real works of art. Each and every outfit provides a great sense of character, and the color scheme is delightful. Barnes also does a beautiful job with Vivian’s signature red gown. The outfit itself is a showstopper. Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design add to the production’s flashiness, and John Shiver’s sound design is nicely balanced.
For those who love the original film or who are looking for a show that is purely entertaining and does not pretend to be otherwise, PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL is worth a visit. The musical nicely represents some of the film’s most iconic moments and adds a great deal of energy and fun behind them. And it cannot be overstated how fantastic Barks is in the role of Vivian; her performance in-and-of-itself is a must-see.
PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL plays at Broadway In Chicago’s Oriental Theatre through April 15. Tickets are $33-$125. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com.
Photo by Matthew Murphy