By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
There are some classic movies that easily make the transition from the big screen to the stage. Because some have first been independent, smaller films like “Once,” “Billy Elliott” or “Kinky Boots,” the task of adapting them into a staged musical production has met with little resistance from fans.
But with more iconic pictures that have enjoyed great success at the box office comes a risk. How to update a new musical from a beloved classic without disenfranchising devoted fans? A change in the chemistry between the characters could be off-putting, even if it makes sense in creating a newly envisioned work as a musical. Therefore, the book writer needs to be conscious that any alteration could go against the designs of the filmmakers and, ultimately, may turn off fans.
With “Pretty Woman,” Garry Marshall’s highest grossing movie, there was little chance of that happening. Marshall and original screenplay writer J. F. Lawton were selected as the book writers for the musical. In directing the movie, Marshall made several changes to Lawton’s earlier, much darker version of the film titled “$3,000” and is largely credited with turning it into the fairy tale blockbuster it became for concerned producers at Disney Studios’ Touchstone Pictures. In fact, Lawton was let go from the project even though he is still the only scriptwriter credited.
When it came to turning the cinematic plum into a possible Broadway smash, changes were necessary. The musical script needed to be a bit more realistic than the unlikely squeaky clean portrayal of Vivian Ward by Julia Roberts. Ultimately, the chemistry between Vivian and Edward Lewis (portrayed in the film by Richard Gere) needed to stay largely unchanged. Marshall and Lawton were recruited to keep that relationship fresh and to incorporate their words with the music and lyrics of songwriters Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.
Also, the beloved role of Beverly Wilshire Hotel manager Barney Thompson played by Hector Elizondo in the film was combined with the so-called “Happy Man” minor character who welcomes viewers to Hollywood and asks at both the beginning and end of the film “What’s your dream?”
It took many years to turn the film into a musical that finally premiered on Broadway at the Niederlander Theatre in 2018. By then Marshall had been dead for more than two years. Lawton finally was able to put back some of the darkness in his character of Vivian that had been sanitized by Marshall and the Disney censors in 1990. In the final version of Pretty Woman: The Musical, Vivian is a lot more street-wise and a bit less refined than Roberts’ screen portrayal.
It makes much more sense to play her this way, but fans of the movie were still largely supportive of the final product. The critics were far less forgiving. It opened for an out-of-town, five-week run in Chicago before opening on Broadway with a new male lead. Steve Kazee left the show and Andy Karl took over as Edward Lewis.
When Pretty Woman: The Musical opened at the Niederlander in August of 2018, the reviews were universally disappointing to say the least. But fans wouldn’t hear of its demise. Largely due to their support at the box office, the show remained open for more than a year, closing in August of 2019 a few days after its one-year anniversary.
Adam Pascal, who played the role as a replacement for Karl on Broadway, brings with him the most impressive of Broadway credits. The original Roger from Rent and the original Radames from Aida, he most closely resembles Broadway royalty than any other recent touring cast member to play the Saenger Theater during its Broadway Across New Orleans series.
But, as good as Pascal is in his songs “Something About Her” and “Freedom” and his final duet with his co-star in”Long Way Home,” the work is titled Pretty Woman and not “Handsome Man.”
Leading actress Olivia Valli more than holds her own opposite Pascal throughout the show. Her “I want” number “Anywhere But Here” clearly establishes her stage persona and her final solo number “I Can’t Go Back” also serves to advance her character and gives the audience insight into her motivation for choosing to move away from the Hollywood streets.
Among the most delightful of the cast members is Kyle Taylor Parker as the aforementioned Happy Man. He literally steals the show from the leading actors in several of his scenes, especially in the back-to-back numbers “On a Night Like Tonight” and “Don’t Forget To Dance” in which he shares the stage with Anju Cloud as Scarlett and the dance floor with Trent Soyster as hotel bellman Giulio.
Parker’s infectious, joyful nature comes through his characters from the opening number and continues in Act II with the number “Never Give Up on a Dream” and the finale “Together Forever.”
As Kit, Vivian’s roommate and confidante, Jessica Crouch is also quite good. Many audience members may have made predictions that the Roy Orbison classic song that lent its name to the movie might have shown up relatively early as a sing-along. However, it really doesn’t appear until after the cast takes its final bows and it is Crouch who handles the lead vocals most effectively.
Although they had never previously worked on a musical theatre piece, Adams and Vallance were selected to convey a sense of the period in which they established their ability to be effective songsmiths. While Adams might have been tempted to rework existing pieces in his repertoire for purposes of advancing the plot or to reveal more about the book’s characters, they deliberately chose to write entirely new music for the project. He has been quoted as saying he was taken aback by the process of composing music for the stage with its deep rejections, severe cuts and major rewrites. His most intricately woven ballad is “You and I,” a song that combines opera arias fromVerdi’s La Traviata with a straight ballad sung by Pascal as Edward. Will Van Dyke is credited as the music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator.
There is a lot to admire in this musical version of a beloved classic. But there was also a potential for a different kind of musical had the producers taken a chance with updating the characters more than they did. By staying with the original formula and keeping the time and setting as 1980s Hollywood, the producers hoped to capture lighting in a bottle again. They were more concerned that too many fans of the film might react dispassionately if they had felt the musical’s book had deviated significantly from the path taken by the movie.
Original director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell was probably most responsible for shaping the final work into his vision. Following his earlier successes of Kinky Boots and On Your Feet!, there was an expectation Mitchell would soar with this musical adaptation. But in the end, the change in the leading actor from Steve Kazee to Andy Karl and the investment in the relatively unknown British actress Samantha Barks in both the out-of-town Chicago and Broadway productions did not inspire confidence across the board.
Broadway critics took nearly every opportunity to pan the work following its opening. Were the COVID pandemic not to have occurred when it did, this national tour would have been criss-crossing the country two years ago. The faults in Pretty Woman: The Musical that existed previously are still there to see, but there are a great many things to like about this modern Cinderella tale and its predictable ending
In the end critics were probably right to denigrate the work as formulaic and derivative. But fans of the film were also right to push back and exercise their opinion by making ticket purchases in droves at the box office. Now that the national tour’s time here is all but over, it’s time for local audiences to register their sentiments. Ultimately, it’s a Pretty “Good” Woman and, as the adage goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Pretty Woman: The Musical (2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission) ends its national tour today with two shows at 1 p.m. – an American Sign Language performance – and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are still available at the Saenger Box Office at 1111 Canal Street or through the Saenger Theatre website.