9/13/2022 PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL Broadway in Atlanta (Fox Theatre)
THE UNAVOIDABLE POWER OF CHARM
Let me start with a confession. I went into this show with an attitude. In my mind, it had three strikes against it:
Although I liked the original 1990 movie, its Cinderella story stretched my willing suspension of disbelief almost to the breaking point. The movie literally succeeded (to my mind) on the charm and appeal of its two stars (Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, for those who never knew. Or forgot.).
I tried to listen to the Original Cast score, and couldn’t get through the first four numbers, completely turned off by the utter blandness of what I was hearing.
The Music and Lyrics were by Brian Adams and Jim Vallance, neither of whom ever worked in Musical Theatre, both of whom are of that post-60’s generation of Rock Musicians whose work never really appealed to me.
And yet, I was more than willing to keep an open mind. After all, many shows that were first contact “misses” with me ended up becoming favorites.
So, the good news is that the show is appealing, its stars as charming as required, and I had a smile on my face throughout. The bad news is that the score is as bland as I expected (a kick-ass “eleven o’clock” anthem excepted), and too often serves to interrupt the plot rather than to advance it. Unfortunately, the choreography is also unexceptional, but (not to damn with faint praise) adequate for the task.
To recap the plot, Edward Lewis is a corporate shark, a financial wizard whose specialty is buying up failing business and “selling them for parts.” He is in Los Angeles to close the deal on obtaining a family-run shipyard. Under circumstances (that are, truth to tell, a strain on credibility), he meets a low-rent Hollywood Boulevard street walker named Vivian Ward (“of the Milledgeville Georgia Wards”) and is intrigued by her apparent intelligence and wit. He hires her to be his companion for a week, Pygmalion-ing her to distract the target of his takeover while, let’s be honest here, enjoying her company and skills himself.
And, of course, the appeal of the story (Cinderella tropes aside) is seeing him changed more by the experience, and slowly (but surely) falling in love.
Several roles from the film have been combined into one character (”Happy Man”) skillfully played by Kyle Taylor Parker, who is our storyteller, welcoming us to Hollywood as a street-smart dream peddler, then smoothly transforming into a hotel manager and a few other denizens. Other supporting roles that were impressively presented included Jessica Crouch as Vivian’s friend Kit, Matthew Stocke as Edward’s sleazy lawyer, Christian Brailsford as the young target of Edward’s takeover, Trent Royster as a rubber-limbed bellhop, and (especially) Amma Osei, who steps out of the ensemble to be Violetta when our main characters go to the opera. Ms. Osei is so impressive, she literally stops the show with her short Traviata-aria,
But it’s the two leads who cement and sell this show. Adam Pascal (Rent’s original Roger) is smoothly elegant as Edward, successfully navigating the sea-change his character experiences, convincingly succumbing to the appeal of this (semi) crass woman. Relative newcomer Olivia Valli (yes, she is related to THAT Valli and in fact played her own grandmother in Jersey Boys) is every bit his match as far as charm and character go. I don’t want to say she is not conventionally pretty as Julia Roberts (or the original Broadway Cast’s Samantha Banks), so I’ll say she makes Vivian glow with intelligence and beauty and grows “prettier” as the show progresses. She constantly makes smart choices, and she has a belt voice that is absolutely spell-binding and toe-tingling.
For the record, I did enjoy the running gag involving Roy Orbison’s popular song, and REALLY enjoyed the staging when it (spoiler alert) is finally heard.
But that returns us to my main problem with the show – the score, Yes, it’s a personal preference that pop music from the nineties is not my cup of tea. So, predictably, I found it banal, repetitive, and lacking any musical depth. It is especially true when it is in such close proximity to other better music – the titular Orbison hit for example, but more egregiously in the La Traviata scene, where Verdi’s soaring music is interspersed with a dull ballad that seems more monotonous by this juxtaposition, in spite of Mr. Pascal’s heartfelt rendition.
But then we get to that anthem, “I Can’t Go Back,” and its brilliant expression of self and pride, and I was sold. Based on that one number, I’m even willing to give the entire score a second chance. I’m listening to it now and am enjoying it. Well, more than my first encounter. It’s amazing how much better a song sounds when a very specifically staged memory shares brain-space with it.
So, yes, there were more than a few been-there seen-that moments that had to perform yeoman duty in carrying the story, too many numbers that seemed to be unwelcome intrusions in the flow of the story, not enough choreographic appeal, and even some questionable staging choices that make more sense in retrospect than while experiencing. I’m thinking here of the La Traviata sequence, in which Edward and Vivian come out of their box seats and awkwardly interact with the opera cast. But it was elegant and beautiful and gave Ms. Valli a chance to really show off that gorgeous iconic red dress. So, I guess we can say it was a surreal expression of Edward’s state of mind and give it a “pass.”
I left the theatre with a smile on my face. But I left in a quandary – do I write about my (semi) negative expectations or my (semi) positive experience? Probably both.
In the final analysis then, Pretty Woman The Musical, like Pretty Woman The Movie before it, is a feel-good triumph of charm over subject, a beautiful staging that should satisfy any fans of the movie. It even manages to insert enough grrrl-power moments to make us forget we are seeing characters exploited by #MeToo nemeses, who, in real life, NEVER find a Cinderella ending,
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #PrettyWomanATL #BroadwayAtlanta #atthefox )
Amma Osei and The Company of Pretty Woman: The Musical
Credit: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade