‘Pretty’ isn’t always a compliment. It can also be code for what a woman is not — sharp, ambitious, or (heaven forbid!) ‘difficult.’ In the case of Vivian Ward, who has a hit movie and a new musical named in her honor, it also means she’s readily available for sex, at a price.
Yes, Pretty Woman: The Musical opened on Broadway tonight, just in time to provide a wistful distraction from our ugly gender wars. Remember 1990, when women knew their place and not-so-secretly wanted men to rescue them, preferably on an actual white horse? Ugh, #metoo. How simple life was then! All is as it once was inside the Nederlander Theatre, where director Jerry Mitchell’s characteristically slick production is vibrant, polished, and yes… very pretty.
But what are we doing here?
Everyone knows how the story goes; producers are counting on it. Another version is parked up the street at My Fair Lady, a problematic fave that fans and critics alike bent over backward to accommodate this spring. Old pleasures die hard. It was a different time! George Bernard Shaw was kind of a feminist, if you think about it.
The most dangerous thing about Pretty Woman: The Musical is that it presents itself like the heroine it idolizes — benignly appealing without asking anyone to think too hard. Nineties nostalgia is all the rage, after all. Who doesn’t fondly remember Julia Roberts in those iconic costumes, beautifully reimagined here by Gregg Barnes? Or the erotic thrill of a rom-com that casts sex as a commodity?
There’s even a soft-rock score by ‘90s emo prince Bryan Adams and frequent collaborator Jim Vallance that tugs gently at heartstrings with on-the-nose pop refrains. (Vivian longs to be “anywhere but here”; “there’s something about her,” Edward muses.) Original screenwriter J.F. Lawton and late director Garry Marshall collaborated on a script that’s dutifully faithful to the film, with a few, very minor nods to the modern notion that maybe women have more to contribute to society than their bodies. (Vivian’s pal Kit wants to be a cop; Vivian briefly entertains finishing school or getting a job before Edward rescues her off that fire escape and she no longer need bother.)
Hats off to Samantha Barks (who broke out as Éponine in the Les Misérables film) for reinventing a wildly beloved character and making it utterly her own. Vivian is not an easy sell in 2018, but the fact that Barks succeeds so convincingly is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, she’s delivering a breakthrough stage performance; on the other, that only makes the story’s painfully retrograde gender politics deceptively more palatable. The reason Edward, and the audience, are meant to like Vivian is the supposed novelty of her being a sex worker who also happens to have wit and personality.
Andy Karl, making a career of playing ‘90s leading men on stage, is aptly squinty and low-key charming in the Richard Gere role of Edward, a welcome departure from the soulless womanizer he played in last year’s Groundhog Day. Orfeh, Karl’s wife in real life, is a swaggering vocal powerhouse as Kit.
Mitchell’s production proceeds at a decent clip, one too many songs about pursuing vague dreams notwithstanding. David Rockwell’s artful set draws sharp distinctions between the grit of Hollywood Boulevard and the luxury of penthouse suites and afternoons on the polo field. Nearly every scene fans of the movie will expect remains in tact here. There Vivian is rocking out in the bathtub; now she’s shopping on Rodeo — and look! — she and Edward are doing it on the baby grand, then holding hands at the opera.
“I want the fairy tale,” Vivian insists. The only tension in Pretty Woman is whether or not her rags-to-riches windfall is going to last. Of course, we know the answer. Why anyone would be nostalgic for a time when women might simply be considered ‘pretty’ and nothing more is the question we ought to be asking.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
(photos: matthew murphy)