When we first encounter Vivian Ward she is a scrappy young woman from rural Georgia who is working Hollywood Boulevard as a prostitute, and trying to scrape together enough money to prevent eviction from her apartment.
Dressed in the classic black patent leather kinky boots and “barely-there” spandex playsuit of the trade (circa 1980s) she is still pretty and full of energy. So are most of the other tough girls in her crowd who show few signs of the physical or emotional abuse endemic to “the oldest profession.” In fact, the whole scene has the vibe of an outdoor dance club. And even when the cops discover the corpse of one of the women’s fellow prostitutes in a nearby dumpster there is barely an eyebrow raised by any of them.
Such is the pure showbiz-style backdrop for “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” the American twist on the Eliza Doolittle story based on the hit 1990 “romantic comedy” (although I’d describe it in far less flowery terms) that had its “pre-Broadway” world premiere Wednesday night at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.
It might well be that at the current moment in time, when prostitutes talk freely about consorting with (future) presidents, this musical will strike a new chord. On the other hand, the movie could just as easily have continued to thrive on Netflix while the reality TV we now call news streams on.
This is not to disparage the show’s exceedingly attractive and talented leads who forge such a palpable chemistry: Samantha Barks (as Vivian), with her fresh-faced beauty, naturally sexy grace, and lush, clarion voice, and Steve Kazee, the handsome, power-voiced actor who plays Edward Lewis, the high-roller New York businessman who falls for her.
It is simply to say that the show is predictable in every way, and that its score – which marks the first musical by award-winning pop music veterans Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance – is essentially a serviceable pastiche. It also is worth noting that the audience saved its greatest applause for the scene in which Edward takes Vivian to the opera (Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the story of a prostitute and her wealthy lover), and Allison Blackwell (earlier seen as a streetwalker) stops the show with her bravura performance of one of Violetta’s arias.
Very much a story of corporate raiders and cold-hearted capitalism, the show (with a book by Garry Marshall and original screenplay writer J.F. Lawton) is set in motion when the cold-hearted, success-driven Edward, on a crucial business trip to Los Angeles to close a huge deal, asks Vivian for directions to the posh Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He is instantly taken with her sassy spirit and her knowledge of the Lotus Esprit he has no idea how to drive, and before you know it he is hiring her for an hour, and then for six days, during which she will be his date at important social functions.
Of course along the way she will undergo a “Pygmalion”-like transformation, with a lavish new Rodeo Drive wardrobe, and mentoring by way of her version of a Colonel Pickering, the hotel manager Mr. Thompson (a charming performance by the ever-morphing Eric Anderson, whose tango lesson number also finds director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell in his best form).
The transformation enacted here is mutual, as Edward, beguiled by Vivian, a straightforward, instinctively smart survivor, begins to find a new kind of freedom, and a more humane and loving spirit within himself, just as Vivian finds a sense of self-worth and dignity.
The quintessential fairy tale? You bet – with the male fantasy of a prostitute who knows just what he needs, and the female fantasy of a rich, sexy guy who will shower her with gifts and, ultimately, true love.
The single-named Orfeh plays Vivian’s tough, punkish roommate, Kit DeLuca, who teaches her the cardinal rule: no kissing on the mouth with a client. Jason Danieley is perfectly smarmy as Edward’s slimy lawyer. Kingsley Leggs and Robby Clater play the father-and-son owners of a ship-building company that is the target of a takeover by Edward. And Tommy Bracco is wonderfully agile and mischievous as Giulio, the hotel bellhop with a nose for discretion.
David Rockwell’s sets are the best-choreographed part of the show with a gilded opera house box a particularly winning element. And Barks’ ideal figure makes every costume by Gregg Barnes look like a million bucks.
Yet in the end there is something a little tired and overly familiar about “Pretty Woman,” a story that feeds on the decades-old roots of the #MeToo movement even as it simultaneously tries to serve as a deftly massaged corrective.
“Pretty Woman: The Musical” runs through April 15 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. For tickets ($33-$125), call (800) 775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic