Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Pretty Woman: The Musical
Oriental Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


Samantha Barks, Steve Kazee and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
You likely remember the story—a young hooker on Hollywood Boulevard is hired by a middle-aged tycoon to be his escort and more for a week. He comes to see her inner worth—she teaches him to enjoy life—and by the end they save each other. So many of the Golden Age musicals were about a man saving a woman or a woman redeeming a man. This one does both, but in this age where all sorts of social issues that were previously taboo are now discussed, Pretty Woman is also about the seedy underworld of Hollywood prostitution. It's sort of My Fair Lady meets the The Life.

To its credit, Pretty Woman (making it's world premiere at the Oriental Theatre before heading to Broadway this summer) acknowledges that seediness and shows it right up front. When another hooker is found dead in a dumpster, we see how dangerous is the life of our heroine, Vivian Ward (Samantha Barks). Bookwriters J. F. Lawton (screenwriter of the 1990 film on which this musical is based) and Garry Marshall (that film's late director who died as the musical was being developed) deserve credit for that, even if this musical directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell plays it pretty safe. Though Vivian has a street-smart edge, she still seems to be half enjoying her life as a hooker, and willing to accept the rationalization of her pal Kit (Orfeh) that the girl who got killed met that fate because of her addiction to drugs. The implication is "we're safe because we don't do drugs," and Vivian remains more or less a clean-cut hooker.

Her client for the week, Edward Lewis (Steve Kazee), is one unhappy dude. He has just broken up with his girlfriend and seems surprisingly joyless about an upcoming deal that will put a family business out of business but make Edward millions. We can trust he knows something's wrong. Underlying pangs of conscience must be what troubles him while his attorney Philip Stuckey (Jason Danieley) is absolutely gleeful over his share of the anticipated profits.

With the writers and director playing it safely down the middle between the dark stuff of prostitution and the romantic fantasy of this story, Pretty Woman isn't taking too many chances. They certainly haven't in their casting decisions, with some pretty perfect choices of Barks, Kazee, Orfeh and Danieley. Barks (the Les Misérable film's Eponine) is a complete delight to watch—funny and touching, with a distinctive powerhouse voice that can deliver the pop rock and country-flavored songs by rocker Bryan Adams and his songwriting partner Jim Vallance. She has genuine star power and this role ought to do for her on Broadway what it did for Julia Roberts's film career. Her performance is reason enough for musical theater lovers to see this show.

Barks is ably matched by Tony Award winner Steve Kazee, who gives a layered, genuine performance as the troubled Edward. As the male lead of Broadway's Once (his Tony-winning role), Kazee's vocal skills are well known. He can belt, he can do soulful folksong singing and has sex appeal to spare. Kazee deftly balances the role's demands to create a man we could, but don't have to, hate in the beginning (he is a corporate raider hiring a young woman for sex, after all) to one we care about by the end. The writers could have given Edward a few more scenes to show us Edward's transformation, but Kazee pulls it off with what he has to work with.

No less impressive are the key supporting players. Orfeh, with her perfect comic timing and her powerful singing voice, is a winner whenever she's on stage. Jason Danieley has practically no singing, sadly, but he plays the slimy corporate attorney beautifully. More commonly a leading man, being cast against his usual good-guy persona works in a huge way—making his Philip seem even more threatening for being such a non-threatening looking type. Eric Andersondoes quite nicely in two roles: one as the "happy man," a denizen of Hollywood Boulevard who sells maps to the stars' homes and leads a couple of production numbers; and Mr. Thompson, the kind manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

The material lends itself well enough to musicalization. Following classic musical theater structure, we open with a scene-setting ensemble number, "Welcome to Hollywood," that takes us to the seamier side of that city of dreams. It's followed by an "I want" number for Vivian ("Anywhere But Here"), then a procession of love ballads and comedy numbers. The songs by rocker Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance (who both collaborated on music as well as lyrics) cover a modest range of genres, from pop rock to country and show tunes. Unlike so many writers today, they don't shy away from recognizable hooks. But they don't go much beyond a single hook either and they rarely seem to use more than three chords in their harmonies.

Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell is an accomplished showman and the show consistently entertains, albeit at the expense of breaking tone. The production number "Never Give Up on a Dream," performed by the Hollywood Boulevard crowd, seems excessively peppy and not credible or earned.

I doubt most audiences interested in a Pretty Woman musical will object to that, though. It's a faithful retelling of one of the all-time hot romcom films. Scenic designer David Rockwell has come up with simple but colorful and imaginative ways to put both the seedy and the elegant parts of Los Angeles on the stage, with Gregg Barnes providing costumes that capture the glamour of Beverly Hills especially well.

And, again, there is no arguing about the star-making performance by Barks and the star-reaffirming performances of Kazee and Orfeh. These are the sorts of distinguished performances that are the hallmark of Broadway. This is a Cinderella fantasy after all, and Ms. Barks makes her Vivian the sort of spunky outsider like The Sound of Music's Maria that can show those powerful men what life is really all about.

Pretty Woman: The Musical, through April 15, 2018, at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago IL. For tickets and further information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. Pretty Woman: The Musical begins previews July 20, 2018, at the Nederlander Theatre in New York.


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