REVIEW: “PRETTY WOMAN” ON BROADWAY

Pretty Woman: The MusicalThere’s a line in the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman, in which a hooker named Vivian Ward tells Edward Lewis, the client she’s falling for, “in case I forget to tell you later, I had a really good time tonight.”

This summer, the musical adaptation of Pretty Woman has made its long-awaited debut on Broadway. And much to their delight, fans of the movie are sure to be buzzing about how much fun they had in the Nederlander Theatre.

The show’s book is written by the film’s screenwriter, J.F. Lawton, as well as its director, the late Garry Marshall (making it one of the final projects he worked on). As a result, the book is practically a carbon copy of its source material – which is exactly what fans of the film desire when seeing a stage version of such a revered classic. Still set in Los Angeles in 1990, the show includes every possible memorable line from the film, cutting nothing substantial while also adding fleshed-out stories for the characters.

In this way, Pretty Woman is the opposite of recent film-to-stage adaptations such as Mean Girls or Bring It On, which favor contemporizing the writing versus replicating it and adding in songs. Most people aren’t going to see Pretty Woman with the expectation of viewing a re-examination of the film through the lens of today. Instead, they’re greeting the delivery of all the film’s well-known punchlines and zingers with loud cheers and rapturous applause. The entire show has to pause at every performance to wait for the audience to quiet down after Vivian delivers her famous, “You people work on commission, right? Big mistake. Big. HUGE! I have to go shopping now” speech.

Pretty Woman tells the Pygmalion-esque love story between Vivian and Edward as the two navigate the blurry lines of business and pleasure. As a film, it ushered in waves of romantic blockbusters attempting to capitalize on its successful fairytale formula. As a musical, it’s one of the most genuinely heartwarming and uplifting stories currently playing on Broadway. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots) and featuring music and lyrics by Jim Vallance and Grammy Award-winning musician Bryan Adams, the musical retains all of the film’s best qualities while simultaneously existing as its own feel-good, standalone experience.

Taking on the lead role of Vivian is the sensational Samantha Barks. Best known for playing Éponine in the 2012 film, Les Misérables, Barks is a bona fide star making a truly triumphant Broadway debut. Her first song, “Anywhere But Here,” immediately showcases what a vocal powerhouse she is. It’s rare for a character to be introduced with such a belt-heavy showstopper at the top of a show, but Barks wastes no time singing her heart out. She blends Adams and Vallance’s contemporary pop-infused score with traditional musical theater sensibilities masterfully. Any actress playing Wicked’s Elphaba or The Last Five Years’ Cathy Hiatt should pray that Barks doesn’t get bored of turning tricks on Hollywood Boulevard anytime soon.

In the pulsing eleven o’clock number “I Can’t Go Back,” Barks channels her inner Kelly Clarkson-meets-Idina Menzel rock-star. Although there are only three more songs after that one until the show ends, Barks’ vocal prowess catapults audiences into a mid-act standing ovation. The way that she exemplifies Vivian’s journey through her passionate performance is awe-inducing, making the catchy song a visceral battle cry that announces her character’s new beginnings.

Barks also brings a heightened level of sarcasm and comedy to the role. Her Vivian is far more playful than Julia Roberts’ was. On stage, the dialogue that came across a bit dry in in the film becomes a lighter tool to show off Vivian’s wit and intelligence – and Barks accomplishes this beautifully. As an actor, Barks proves that she’s got much more to give than just a big voice. And as a vocalist, she spectacularly shows off a tremendous gift that can very well lead her to a Tony Award (or at the very least, a nomination) next year.

One of the key differences between the film and the musical comes in the form of the character of Kit. In the movie, Kit is Vivian’s sidekick whose sole purpose is sassy tips and motivational pep talks. In the musical, she’s more of a mentor and her history is expanded to create a far more fully-fledged, central figure in the story.

Playing the vivacious New Yorker is Orfeh (Legally Blonde), who brings an enhanced level of street-smart bravado to the role. Known for her signature belt, Orfeh more than delivers on her big solo, “Rodeo Drive” – a colorful and fierce tutorial while showing Vivian how to maximize her new life of luxury.

In this version of the story, Vivian isn’t the only one who decides to leave her life of prostitution behind. A new sub-plot about Kit’s childhood dreams of becoming a police offer becoming realized adds another layer to the warm and fuzzy feeling of the show’s climax. With her bombastic comedic instincts, Orfeh makes Kit an integral part of why Pretty Woman works so well on stage.

Orfeh’s real-life husband, Andy Karl (Groundhog Day), equips Edward with the same playboy-with-a-heart-of-gold charm that made Richard Gere so irresistible in the film. Given his palpable chemistry with Barks, it’s remarkable to think that Karl joined the cast of the show only two months before the first preview performance (after original actor Steve Kazee had to drop out for personal reasons). Vocally, he does a terrific job of giving Edward the quintessential 1990s rasp that defined the alternative rock music of that era. He sounds different here than he has in any of his previous roles, showcasing his versatility and tireless work ethic. With his grungy take on these songs, Karl makes it very easy to hear the Bryan Adams of it all.

Additional standouts include Tommy Bracco (Newsies) as the bellman at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where Vivian and Edward reside during their weeklong tryst. Bracco’s performance is hysterically funny and joyously illustrates how an ensemble member can become a real scene-stealer. Mitchell’s euphoric choreography is highlighted best when Bracco is leading it, and he does so with levels of grace and energy that make his time on stage an undeniable treat.

Also in the ensemble, Allison Blackwell (A Night With Janis Joplin) delivers one of the show’s most jaw-dropping moments. When Edward takes Vivian to see La traviata, Blackwell’s gorgeous arias pierce the hearts of the audience as much as they do Vivian’s. Interspersed with Edward’s rock-tinged “You and I,” Blackwell’s classical soprano voice is on full display as she nails note after note. It’s a tonal shift from the rest of the show’s music, but its inclusion creates an unforgettable moment that will have audiences clamoring for more.

For those fans who have paid tribute to the film every Halloween, they’ll be pleased to know that costume designer Gregg Barnes (The Drowsy Chaperone) also takes his primary cues from the movie. That means that, yes, of course Vivian first steps out in a blonde bob wig with an oversized jacket, black miniskirt and thigh-high boots. Of course she wears the red gown when she attends the opera. After all, the trajectory of Vivian’s evolution is most obviously apparent through her fashion – so using these two iconic outfits as the spectrum for which to trace her adventure is as smart as it is crowd-pleasing. In between, her outfits have been slightly contemporized to fit more modern understandings of “sexy” and “high-society,” yet the story her clothes tell sync perfectly with the show’s overall narrative. Barnes accomplishes the daunting task of paying homage to the film’s fashion and period while also redefining its aesthetic to create something current and fresh.

While Pretty Woman: The Musical will surely check all of the boxes for those attending to simply see their favorite film live on stage, its meticulous transformation into a one-of-a-kind piece of theater should make it a must-see production even for the three people on this planet who have never seen the movie.

Either way, audiences won’t have any difficulty remembering that they had a really good time.


CLICK HERE to purchase tickets to Pretty Woman: The Musical, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre in New York City. And CLICK HERE to pre-order the original cast recording, available digitally on September 21 and in stores on October 26!

 

Originally published on PopBytes

FIVE MUST-SEE SHOWS ON THE NYC THEATER SCENE THIS FALL

Can’t score a ticket to Hamilton? Need something to hold you over until WaitressThe Crucible and American Psycho open in the spring?

Below, check out a list of five of the most exciting new shows and revivals on the New York theater scene this fall.

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ALLEGIANCE

STARRING: George Takei, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, Katie Rose Clarke, Michael K. Lee
WHERE: Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

After Pearl Harbor is attacked, a Californian Japanese-American family is sentenced to forced internment at a Wyoming camp. While there, all of the families who have been relocated are required to a fill out an infamous loyalty questionnaire as a way of ensuring their allegiance to the United States instead of Japan. On this questionnaire, internees must designate whether or not they are willing to enlist. For Sammy Kimura (Telly Leung), the decision is a no-brainer: of course he will join the American troops. But for others, like Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee), burning draft cards and publicly denouncing the country that imprisoned his family sends a much louder message. So when Sammy’s sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), falls in love with Frankie, he must learn how to navigate battle terrains not just while at war, but at home as well.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Inspired by Takei’s own life, this multi-generational family saga chronicles what happens when a man is torn between his love for his country and his love for his family. With his father refusing to put on a U.S. military uniform out of principle, and with his sister starting a new life with the man he sees as the antithesis of what he stands for, Sammy struggles to balance his beliefs and responsibilities. A fascinating character study that forces its audience to think about what patriotism means to them, Allegiance is a thought-provoking, unique look at a dark chapter in American history that must not be forgotten.

STANDOUT SCENE

As always, Salonga is a vocal titan. Her big solo, “Higher,” acts as the biggest show-stopper of the production. After finding herself caught between Frankie and Sammy, Kei must decide how to give both of these men the love and support that they need. She sings about pushing herself to new levels to be who she needs to be for them. Coupled with Jay Kuo’s music and lyrics, the song showcases not just Salonga’s powerful instrument, but how war harshly impacts more than just those on the battlefield.

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DAMES AT SEA

STARRING: Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita, John Bolton, Mara Devi, Danny Gardner, Cary Tedder
WHERE: The Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

A charming and nostalgic ode to the golden era of movie musicals, Dames at Sea opens with black and white credits presented on a projection screen, immediately transporting its audience back several decades. When a young small-town woman steps off the bus in New York City to pursue her goal of becoming a Broadway star, she meets a cast of characters who can all help make her dreams come true. But when the show she plans on making her big debut in loses its venue, it’ll be up to her and her friends to find a new location and perfect the show before the curtain call – all in the matter of one very busy day.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Aside from being the show that once launched the career of the great Bernadette Peters,   is not your typical tap musical. While it does pay homage to the days of Cole Porter and Fred Astaire, the show acts almost like a lighthearted parody of the musicals of that time. Full of self-aware humor and comical jabs at how sensationalized the plot is, this production acts as a refreshing, laugh-out-loud contemporary companion to the shows from the era it’s set in.

STANDOUT SCENE

Any scene with Lesli Margherita is worth the full admission price. As a diva living in fear of being replaced by a fresh-faced unknown, Margherita is terrifically over the top. She shamelessly seduces the men around her to get what she wants and then tosses them aside when they’ve fulfilled her wishes. The hilarious choices she brings to her character make her the “villain” you root for, even if it’s just to make sure that she doesn’t leave the stage. With a booming voice and dance skills that would make any ingénue shake in her tap shoes, Margherita is a bonafide scene-stealer whose magnificent work in this show will undoubtedly be recognized by Tony voters.

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FIRST DAUGHTER SUITE

STARRING: Caissie Levy, Alison Fraser, Betsy Morgan, Rachel Bay Jones, Mary Testa, Barbara Walsh, Theresa McCarthy, Isabel Santiago, Carly Tamer
WHERE: The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street)
WHEN: Now through November 22 only!

STORY

Presented in four separate parts, First Daughter Suite is an exploration of the wives and daughters of various American Presidents. Directed by Kirsten Sanderson and written by Michael John LaChiusa, this new musical delves into the relationships these women have with one another and with how they’re perceived by the American people. Featuring Julie Eisenhower, Pat, Tricia and Hannah Nixon, Amy and Rosalynn Carter, Susan and Betty Ford, Patti Davis, Nancy Reagan, Anita Castelo, and Barbara, Laura and Robin Bush, First Daughter Suite is an original look at the deeply private lives of these highly public figures.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

The Public has been churning out hit after hit. Last year, their show Fun Home (read my review here) went on to Broadway and won five Tony Awards, including Best New Musical. This year, of course, is all about Hamilton. After its initial sold-out run at The Public, the show has gone on to be a certified box office juggernaut since its Broadway debut. With the accolades already piling up (including a McArthur “Genius Grant” for creator and star Lin Manuel Miranda), Hamilton is all but sure to sweep the Tonys come June. So how can The Public follow up two smash successes like this?

With First Daughter Suite, they continue to encourage innovative new musical theater. The show also features a vast cast of immensely talented women. Theater buffs will be delighted to hear them all sing in the intimate venue. With essentially no dialogue, the show transitions from song to song, giving each actor an opportunity to individually shine. And when they’re not performing their solos, they break off into layers of harmonies and belt-off contests which amount to pure ear candy. It’s worth catching First Daughter Suite for the singing alone – but if you can’t check it out live, don’t miss the recently announced cast recording when it hits stores in 2016.

STANDOUT SCENE

In the closing vignette, Barbara Bush (Mary Testa) is commemorating Robin (Theresa McCarthy), her daughter who died at the age of four from pediatric leukemia. As she stands watching the Atlantic waters crash against the Maine shore on a cold October day in 2005, she’s visited by Robin’s spirit, and the audience quickly learns that the two of them have this reunion on this same day every year – the anniversary of Robin’s death. When Laura (Rachel Bay Jones) arrives and beckons Barbara inside, the sharp contrast between her relationship with her daughter-in-law and deceased daughter underscores how even with time, the pain and impact of losing a child is something that no parent can ever forget.

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FOOL FOR LOVE

STARRING: Sam Rockwell, Nina Arianda, Tom Pelphrey, Gordon Joseph Weiss
WHERE: Samuel J Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street)
WHEN: Now through December 13 only!

STORY

A pair of ex-lovers (Rockwell and Arianda) find themselves in a small motel in the Mojave Desert. There, they passionately rip each other to shreds, revealing their darkest and most shocking secrets. As they continue to pick at the scabs of the relationship they once had, will what’s underneath reveal that they do – and can – still love one another?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

Written by Sam Shepard with his signature gritty and fiery flair, Fool For Love is a brutally honest and often dirty look at what it means to be drawn to someone who brings out the worst in you. It’s a multi-layered, complex drama that unpacks the many definitions of “love” and tests its limits in merciless ways. Although you won’t leave the theater feeling uplifted, the punch in the gut feeling you depart with is a testament to the work’s resounding power, unapologetic dialogue, and the committed performances of the actors.

STANDOUT SCENE

Without giving too much away, a pivotal reveal is when one of the characters discloses the truth surrounding the death of the other one’s mother. In a show chock-full of jaw-on-your-floor moments, this one certainly takes the cake. It’s so shattering that it will send a chill down the audience’s spines, resulting in the type of visceral reaction only truly excellent theater is capable of. And as the aftermath of this reveal begins to have its full ripple effect, the vulnerability and tension that comes out of it culminates in the show’s explosive finale.

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ON YOUR FEET

STARRING: Ana Villafane, Josh Segarra, Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo
WHERE: Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway)
WHEN: Now playing

STORY

Set to the duo’s biggest hits, On Your Feet is a biographical show about the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. We meet Gloria (Ana Villafane) as a teenager and follow her on her journey to international superstardom. Along the way, she and Emilio (Josh Segarra) fall in love, stand up to music industry executives who claim the world isn’t ready for their sound, and craft smashes like “Conga,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “1-2-3,” and “Turn The Beat Around.”

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT

You don’t need to be a Gloria Estefan fan to enjoy On Your Feet – but you’ll certainly be one after you leave the theater. Directed by Jerry Mitchell and featuring sizzling choreography by Sergio Trujillo, the show acts as a high-energy concert of sorts, interlaced with an inspiring and touching story told in between the classic numbers. Featuring a detailed look at fame, family, and assimilation, On Your Feet is the type of feel-good production that so many jukebox musicals strive to achieve but rarely actually do.

STANDOUT SCENE

After the tour bus accident that almost took her life, Gloria must learn how to walk before she can conga again. As she is in the process of rehabilitation, she and Emilio have their only real argument of the show. He wants her to make her comeback performance at the American Music Awards, while she’s afraid that she might not be ready and that people will only pity her. Together, they overcome the difficulties they’re faced with. And when Gloria eventually returns to the stage, it’s a soaring, moving, and triumphant moment – not just for them but also for those witnessing their story unfold.

Originally published on PopBytes