THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is a solidly entertaining musical, but much like florals for spring, it’s not exactly groundbreaking.
Composer Elton John, lyricist Shaina Taub, book writer Kate Wetherhead, and director Anna D. Shapiro (who Chicago audiences will likely know from her tenure at Steppenwolf Theatre Company) have put together a contemporary pop musical in the well-trod terrain of its predecessors. Based upon Lauren Weisberger’s original 2003 novel and the cult-classic 2006 film, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA follows recent college grad and aspiring writer Andrea “Andy for short” Sachs as she takes on the demanding role of second assistant to Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of the fictional fashion magazine RUNWAY. While the musical is fun, it lacks ambition in its execution.
The musical’s characterization of the central character is lacking. While the novel and the film painted Andy as incredibly driven and highly ambitious, here she seems entirely too earnest and fresh-faced. Of the main characters, Andy by far has the most stage time. While Taylor Iman Jones is winsome and well-cast in the role—and one heck of a belter—Andy’s many downtempo solos outstay their welcome. John and Taub have put together too many “I Want” songs for Andy, starting with the show’s solid but not especially impactful opener “I Mean Business.” Sure, the song establishes Andy as somewhat of a go-getter, but the song lacks the oomph to really kick off the musical. It doesn’t help that it’s soon accompanied by a similar song once Andy starts the job at RUNWAY. Her 11 o’clock solo “What’s Right For Me” also oozes earnestness.
The most successful number for Andy is easily “Who’s She?” in which she delights in her arrival at Paris Fashion Week. I adored this number because it demonstrates Andy’s ambition and her craving for success. I only wish that THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA had stuck more firmly to that side of the character. Andy is the most interesting when we see her pushing for that success, even to the point of ruthlessness — it’s what she has in common with her boss.
Instead, the musical too often paints Andy’s drive and devotion to her work as a moralistic shortcoming. That’s simply a drag. Andy’s generically nice chef boyfriend Nate (Michael Tacconi) and her best friends Lauren (Christiana Cole) and Kayla (Tiffany Mann), similarly generically nice hipster alternative types are meant to be foils as she becomes caught up in the high-stakes high fashion world of RUNWAY (and, of course, a little tête-à-tête with fellow magazine employee Christian Thompson—played by Christian Thompson). Unfortunately, Andy’s trio of friends have the weakest material in the entire show. All of their numbers could easily be cut, especially the insipid “The Old You.” While Cole and Mann give genuinely kind performances, Tacconi comes across as overly bitter. That’s largely due to the fact that Nate’s character on the page is flat, but Tacconi is also sadly one of the less effective vocalists in the cast. It’s just not clear why Andy would be so devoted to Nate at the age of 22 when she has much bigger fish to fry in her life plans.
Luckily, the other central characters in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA are far more compelling. Andy has so much stage time, however, that the character arcs for Miranda (Beth Leavel), first assistant Emily Charlton (Megan Masako Haley), and Nigel Owens (Javier Muñoz) feel disjointed. While Andy’s constantly in the foreground, Miranda, Emily, and Nigel rotate moments in the spotlight—but they all go so long between numbers that sometimes it’s hard to keep track of their arcs. The same goes for the connection between book, music, and James Alsop’s choreography. This isn’t a dance-heavy show, but the dance is mainly comprised of tableaus between numbers rather than incorporated into the songs.
That aside, the main roles are examples of sublime casting. Beth Leavel is divine. She carries herself with the air of a woman who knows she’s the most important one in the room, and she nails Miranda’s dry, demanding delivery. She makes fine work of Miranda’s beloved monologue about cerulean from the movie. And while Arianne Phillips’s costume designs are a mixed bag—they read more typical modern musical theater than real high fashion—she’s put together some classy looks for Miranda. While the show can’t reveal Miranda’s vulnerability card too soon, Leavel needs more material to work with; she really only has one solo song.
Masako Haley is a treat as Emily. She plays the role more frantic and frazzled than Emily Blunt did in the movie, but it’s a take that suits Masako Haley’s own energy. She still conveys Emily’s utter devotion to the job, and Masako Haley is particularly delightful in the second act opener “Bon Voyage” in which she laments that Andy has the chance to fulfill her long-awaited dream of going to Paris.
Javier Muñoz is an undisputable gem and highlight as Nigel. He’s also easily given the most effective and most enjoyable song in the entire musical. “Dress Your Way Up” is catchy and delivers the kind of high energy razzle dazzle that’s lacking in other parts of the show. Muñoz shines in the number as he guides Andy through her makeover moment. I also enjoyed that the musical elevates Nigel’s backstory and rounds out his character. His second act number “Suddenly Seen” conveys Nigel’s reason for his devotion to RUNWAY, and Muñoz is endlessly endearing. I only wish that the writers had found ways to create similarly specific angles for some of the other characters, particularly Andy.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is an enjoyable musical, and I was thoroughly entertained watching it. While some of the numbers seem like easy cuts, it’s also not overly long. But the musical lacks the clever, sometimes biting wit of its source material. It’s undeniably fun and reminds me why it’s a treat to take in new contemporary musicals, but much like Andy pre-makeover, the musical still needs refinement to really raise the stakes.
The pre-Broadway engagement of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA plays Broadway In Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 West Randolph, through August 21, 2022. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com for tickets.