The iconic 1990 Gary Marhsall romantic comedy “Pretty Woman” about a sex worker inadvertently falling in love with a corporate shark made stars of leads Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. In 2018, the musical adaptation ran at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway, for a solid year on the Great White Way. While less than stellar initial reviews and a lack of Tony nominations contributed to the show’s fairly short shelf life, the first national tour began in late 2021 and has made its way to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Though its original run may have been short, the show plays to a packed house here in South Florida. This begs the question: Does this Cinderella story have a princess of a show beneath the rags?
To preface: I went in purely with fresh eyes and zero attachment to the source material. However, from a quick imdb read, the show doesn’t take much deviation from the actual film aside from the establishment of a “Happy Man” as the emcee, detailing the dreams and lives of Vivian, Kit and Edward to allow a more stage-y element to provide insight to the story. In its life as a musical, the show relies on the tried and true tactics of translating screen to stage productions, that are prevalent in intellectual property (IP) shows. Meta references to the film, giving smaller characters dramatic numbers to pad the show’s runtime and situational self-awareness that’s played for laughs. Within the original 2018 Broadway season of “Pretty Woman” the Theater District saw the likes of clunkers like “King Kong” and “Tootsie” live short runs and adaptations with far more staying power like “Beetlejuice” taking pre-existing films, being given a new life for a theater-going audience.
What makes bringing “Pretty Woman” to the stage difficult is whether or not their film characters have a unique voice that demands to sing. As the old Broadway adage goes, “If you can’t say it, sing it, and if you can’t sing it, dance it.” The fundamental issue with some of the characters in “Pretty Woman” is that it is unclear if they are meant to leap into song and whether the songs they leap into are effective at storytelling.
The first act is absolutely loaded with big ensemble dance/musical sequences that, while featuring all the flash and spectacle of a Broadway show, utterly drag the plot so vastly that the stakes aren’t fully present whatsoever. With two reprises and a preamble already before intermission, the plot isn’t being established through song as much as it is halting in its tracks to detail inner monologues via the score. However, by the second act with far less songs, the show begins to feel like the characters are more fleshed out with genuine risks at hand. The plot picks up so dramatically that motives and stakes are finally present, which feels like night and day after the “Entr’acte” of a sample of the titular Roy Orbison song.
In its initial run, “Pretty Woman” was intended to be a Broadway vehicle for its star Samantha Barks, who has a storied career on London’s West End and was gaining stateside recognition from her appearance as Eponine in the film version of “Les Miserables.” With this production, Olivia Valli plays Vivian, with her prior credits including “Wicked” as the alternate for Elphaba and in “Jersey Boys” in its off-Broadway run, where she performed the story of her grandfather, Frankie Valli. Here, Valli is a star in the making, loaded with charisma as Vivian Ward, with personality and vocal talent that makes you so excited for her next steps. With a more capable director, Valli could easily play Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” with all her flightiness and charm. Adam Pascal of “Rent” fame returns to the role after a run in the Broadway show as Edward, and the musical motifs of his character are so difficult to distinguish from the “One Song Glory” of his performance as Roger with a repertoire of some of Adams’ schmaltziest power ballads. The show is absolutely stolen by its young ensemble cast, from Kyle Taylor Parker as the Happy Man who is a delight as the show’s narrator, Trent Soyster as Giulio has some of the best physical comedy and Amma Osei who delivers powerhouse vocals as Violetta delivering the “La traviata” opera scene from the original film.
Composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has boasted about his dominance of merging musical theater with rock and roll. The theater world has seen artists ranging from Duncan Sheik in “Spring Awakening” to U2 in “Spiderman: Turn off the Dark” previously taking the titan to task. In “Pretty Woman” the gauntlet is taken up by the duo of 80s Canadian power ballad rocker Bryan Adams with songwriting partner Jim Vallance, the duo reuniting for their first musical project since the 1980s. While the Adams-Vallance partnership has delivered timeless classics of distinct ballads with a hardened rock edge, here their songs feel tepid, too afraid to even dip a toe in the water of musical theater. The issue lies in the fact that the lyrics are written with a “telling not showing” mentality that doesn’t exactly engage the audience, that is delivered with all the seriousness of a heart attack. It isn’t a bad thing to write what you know, but the songs in the show have a certain repetitive nature that makes for perfect pop songs, just not telling a story. Though writing from a limited reference point can prove to be an exciting creative challenge, Adams and Vallance span a repertoire of tunes from “aquanet glam metal” to “tender acoustic ballad” suited for a Bret Michaels Behind The Music special. Laden with late 80s rocker fascination and especially its Cinderella story, it’s impossible for me to avoid the comparisons to musical theater’s “love to hate” obsession, “Diana: the Musical.” Though I could argue the Princess Di musical at least digs into its campy nature rather than hiding from it. The addition of the title song “Pretty Woman” is an absolute delight for the curtain call and nearly makes me wish the show had just been played as a jukebox musical.
With a setting of “Once Upon a Time in the 80s” it’s clear that the show relies on a certain nostalgia of a bygone era from its audience. The rise of rugged individualism and Reaganomics makes musical numbers about “dreams” and being “beautiful” a sentiment of empowerment, the “Big mistake, huge” line set to a shopping montage is meant to take its audience through a rose-tinted trip down memory lane of 1980s America that feels not just aestheticized but controlled from the narrative of empowerment through consumerism.
What makes the show so perplexing is the reality that this was produced within the past five years or so. While yes, there is absolutely value in shows that do not have to cover heavy social commentary, director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell playing this show as a 1:1 adaptation of a film produced in the late 80s feels like a missed opportunity. With so much discussion around the criminalization of sex work as well as, #MeToo and the vast upheaval of the roles of women in the 21st century, a story that was written for the post-Reagan era crowd doesn’t have nearly as much weight when played to a modern audience.
A recurring motif within the show is the idea of “dreams” and is established through the contrast of Kit and Vivian. While Kit is given a motivation to pursue a dream of becoming a cop, Vivian’s dream is established as “to be anywhere but here” in act 1, but by act 2 she reveals her childhood dream to find a fairy tale prince to sweep her off her feet. Obviously, these aren’t equal and there is no shame in wanting romantic fulfillment with a life of stability, but we never see Kit’s dream payoff, while Vivian gets the big gesture from Edward with an ending that suggests she gets the storybook romance with Edward although fundamentally she would be in the same place she was the entire show by the end of it, where this ending would work on film doesn’t exactly feel earned in a theater setting.
I can concede that this musical is at least targeted at a demographic that has an affinity for the original film and the time period it represents, which is, not me. I was born during the Clinton era and my favorite Richard Gere role is Billy Flynn in “Chicago.” But what makes this show so endearing as an experience of live theater is for the people who have the connection to the original Julia Roberts film getting to see the movie take on a new life. Especially in the theater around me I noticed many couples seated in my area who were absolutely delighted in witnessing the romance on stage unfold. “Pretty Woman: the Musical” is an absolutely charming night of theater for the people who want the Cinderella story through rose-tinted 1980s nostalgia. The show is currently playing at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, FL from now until May 15 with tickets available here.