When the 1990 movie comedy “Pretty Woman” catapulted Julia Roberts to stardom, it was widely reported that Disney and late director Garry Marshall had tweaked J.F. Lawton’s downbeat prostitute/john tale “Three Thousand” into a sumptuous rom-com, to the profit of all concerned. Its newest incarnation sanitizes the tale completely. With anything mature or sensual systematically removed, “Pretty Woman: The Musical” goes all-in on fantasy, casting two sizzling talents, Samantha Barks and Andy Karl, as bland, pretty people singing pretty Bryan Adams-Jim Vallance tunes with nothing much at stake. Stubbornly inconsequential, it’s a morally uplifting fairy tale of which everyone, young and old alike, can be skeptical.
The Lawton-Marshall libretto fundamentally sticks to the screenplay line by line, joke by joke. Multimillionaire corporate raider Edward Lewis (Karl) hops in a brand-new 1989 Lotus Esprit and, in an impulse maybe only Hugh Grant could explain, whisks streetwalker Vivian Ward (Barks) from Hollywood Blvd. to his Beverly Hills hotel penthouse. A $300 night of whoopie turns into a $3,000 week of companionship among the niteries, country clubs and opera houses of the super-rich, and to hear the script tell it, each rescues the other: He pulls her out of The Life, while she teaches him to Really Feel.
Fair enough. The movie asked us to take Vivian’s degradation mostly on faith anyway, and probably even “Three Thousand” never aspired to the gritty detail of “Klute” or “Leaving Las Vegas.” But this version takes the absence of realism even further. The plucky, self-assured Vivian, in miniskirt and thigh-highs, could easily give the impression she’s simply a chirpy flight attendant stuck working one of those bargain airlines.
As Barks hops onto a bench to exchange Mary-and-Rhoda wisecracks with BFF Kit (Orfeh), surrounded by “Guys and Dolls” goofballs, the notion that this winsome gamine is a sex worker on the prowl is preposterous. (The movie’s debate over whether to take on a pimp, and the roughnecks who threaten to work the women over, are pointedly omitted.) No hooker’s ever been merrier, gaily skipping across Edward’s room with a cushion for her knees in order to make the acquaintance of his zipper, though as we go to black it’s more likely she’s there tying his shoelaces. She says she does “everything except kiss on the mouth,” yet kissability is the one carnal trait you’d bet she possessed.
Then again, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and team toss a decided gloss over this G-rated version of Hollywood nights, with production numbers and ensemble acting executed with exaggerated musical-comedy snap. The boulevard is cheery as a carnival, and despite an interesting between-scenes silhouette motif from David Rockwell (sets) and Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg (lighting), there’s little sense of Vivian and Edward’s moving between opposing worlds. So sanitized is the material for our protection that the dumpster discovery of “Skinny Marie,” beaten to death, gets a ho-hum reaction, tastelessly followed by “Happy Man” (Eric Anderson), our singing-dancing ragbag emcee, genially assuring us that we should “never fear — let hope and faith surround you…. Don’t give up until your dreams have found you.” Tell that to Marie.
As for the Cinderella story, what’s to rescue? With Vivian already a wholesome cockeyed optimist, her “before” scenes just play up her foul mouth and loud nose-blowing. But don the famous cocktail dress or that iconic red gown (recreated just so by Gregg Barnes) and she’s as poised as Kate Middleton. No Galahad has to rescue her from grabby lawyer Philip (Jason Danieley, maxi-smarm) — she’s got the moves. The more sangfroid Vivian displays, the emptier her plight becomes, not to mention her lyrics about aching to be “anywhere but here.”
For his part, Karl’s warmth belies his efforts to represent a soulless money machine and people-user, though he pulled that off bigtime in “Groundhog Day.” His “I want” song says he craves “Freedom” (which must mean “affection” or “purpose,” since wealth is the best ticket to freedom there is), yet his claims of being troubled lack conviction. Meeting Vivian, he soliloquizes, “There’s something about her/ She’s charming there’s no doubt,” and there’s no doubt there’ll be no need for a character reversal. He’s healed already.
There’s also no doubt about anyone’s frame of mind, since the country-tinged pop numbers consistently announce each singer’s subtext. Though the lyrics teem with cliche, the cast gives its all to sell them, starting with the vocally confident Barks and Karl. Orfeh’s Kit — all gospel-worthy pipes and Jersey Shore attitude — is utterly tangential to the story but welcome in every appearance. Anderson doubles neatly as the supple Happy Man and the upright, uptight hotel manager, though the latter would serve us better with a clever character song than a tacky tango number with his bellboys.
One moment in act one is at odds with the overall weightlessness. Downstage center, Barks gazes at Edward’s TV during her champagne-and-strawberries “carpet picnic.” Moodily lit by Posner and Rosenberg, she faces front, and you can suddenly read everything on her face you’d expect a true casualty of mean streets to feel: pain, fear, regret — a fleeting glimpse of the emotional truth of Barks’ Eponine in the film version of “Les Miserables.” More of that might not make Vivian any prettier, but it could render her, and the show around her, much more truthful and affecting.