There’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