The moment Samantha Barks smiles and sings near the beginning of this musical adaptation of the film “Pretty Woman,” we know things are going to be OK. The sense that this show — not exactly a match with the #MeToo era — has missed its cultural moment never completely disappears but it does dissipate, becoming at least semi-irrelevant when confronted with Barks’ big personality and even bigger voice. She proves highly capable of sweeping us up, if not completely away, into this faithfully scripted (by the movie’s late director Garry Marshall and original screenwriter J.F. Lawton), blandly scored (by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance), capably but not imaginatively directed (by Jerry Mitchell) version of the 1990 mega hit that launched Julia Roberts into stratospheric superstardom.
Barks (Eponine in the film version of “Les Miserables”) plays Vivian Ward, the Hollywood Boulevard prostitute who melts the frozen heart of corporate raider Edward Lewis, played in the movie, in a famously frigid performance, by Richard Gere and here by Tony winner Steve Kazee of “Once” fame, who instead of being frigid is instead just downright depressed. If you thought this character couldn’t be played any less dynamically, guess again. Kazee sure can sing pop songs though, investing with convincingly soulful numbness Edward’s defining song “Freedom,” which has minimal meaning — freedom from what, exactly? — other than what Kazee’s gorgeously somber tone gives it.
Adams and his long-time partner Vallance demonstrate all the promise and problems of most first-time scores by pop writers. The songs have plenty of top-40-ish verve and amiability, but they tend to set scenes — like the song “Rodeo Drive,” which Vivian’s sidekick Kit (the entertaining Orfeh) shows up to deliver and then basically says “gotta go” — or announce inner feelings, such as Edward’s “Something About Her,” which tips us off way too early (instantly, in fact) about the character’s deeper interest in Vivian, when really the whole story relies on that very emotion emerging and growing. The songs don’t contain drama, nor are they specific enough to play the important story-telling role of filling in for the lack of cinematic close-ups. Vivian and Edward rarely sing to each other, so the songs become a bit more like a pleasant soundtrack accompaniment than a necessary narrative driver. That’s the downside of a nearly word-for-word script: Marshall and Lawton never seem ready to sacrifice a scene in order to musicalize it.
The result is the elevation of a supporting figure, with Eric Anderson effectively playing the role of the hotel manager Mr. Thompson — who initially disapproves of but then becomes enchanted by Vivian — and doubling as the painfully ill-conceived character of Happy Man, a loose-limbed, emcee-type figure who sells star maps on Hollywood Boulevard and sings the opener “Welcome to Hollywood,” and the worse “Never Give Up on a Dream,” which Happy Man sings to… Kit, not Vivian.
These are the two big production numbers, and since they can be switched out easily and replaced with something genuinely spectacular or entertaining (some actual dancing, perhaps, or at least some take on Hollywood as a generator of oh-so-rarely real fairy-tales), most certainly should be. Mitchell doesn’t need to look far for an example; think about the entertaining number “Everybody Say Yeah” in his own show “Kinky Boots,” which gave life to the factory setting by putting people on a conveyor belt.
The lack of creativity surrounding her only makes Barks’ performance more noteworthy. As long as she’s onstage, lovingly playing a character who can giggle at the opening of a jewelry box, well up watching the opera, wear the famed dresses (costume designer Gregg Barnes knows the audience wants to see the original red one) with grace, and just generally express vulnerable small-town humility amidst the polo match and Rodeo Drive settings, the show fundamentally flows.
It’s a star-making role, with a performer more-than-ready for Broadway stardom, with a show title targeted to the demographic that actually purchases theater tickets. If everything else is nothing more than generic, does it matter?
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