theater review

Theater Review: Pretty Woman and the Trouble With Onstage Nostalgia

Samantha Barks in Pretty Woman, at the Nederlander. Photo: Matthew Murphy

As you approach the Nederlander Theatre, the marquee flashes a series of bold all-caps phrases: “BOLD WOMAN — FIERCE WOMAN — FUNNY WOMAN — SMART WOMAN,” and finally, inevitably, the title: Pretty Woman. Inside the theater, posters and T-shirts at the merch stand bear the same messaging. The show’s producers have been trying to get out in front of the fact that their material doesn’t exactly scream 2018 for a while, now opting for this catechism of empowerment. They needn’t have bothered. For one thing, more adjectives are never the solution to a problem. For another, Pretty Woman: The Musical has plenty of problems outside of its politics. If the show were a witty, brilliantly scored, fleet-footed theatrical gem, then it might be worthwhile to attempt a nuanced excavation of the kind of worldview it’s espousing beneath the top-notch presentation. (I waded into those choppy waters with Carousel, a beautifully danced and sung revival of an incredible score that still didn’t sit right with me.) But Pretty Woman is none of these things. It’s the kind of lifeless clunker that makes your heart go out to its actors, who are hooked up like defibrillators to a body that, no matter how much energy they pump into it, can’t be revived. The world, and especially this oversaturated little island, is full of fantastic performers. What it’s not so full of is fantastic writers.

And writing is hard. Adapting is a special kind of hard. Pretty Woman’s book writers — J. F. Lawton, who wrote the 1990 film about a prostitute and a corporate raider caught up in a Hollywood Cinderella story, and the late Garry Marshall, who directed it — had the difficult task of resurrecting and retooling a beloved piece of pop culture that they created in and for a different time, attempting to make it live in the present while retaining everything people remember loving about it. Unless it’s particularly agile, such a project is almost certainly doomed to slip into the goopy swamp of nostalgia, and Pretty Woman goes ahead and dives in voluntarily. It’s more concerned with checking the boxes of all the movie’s most famous moments (“Big mistake. Big. Huge”; “I would have stayed for two thousand.” / “I would have paid four”; “I never treated you like a prostitute.” / “You just did”) than it is with telling us anything new about these characters or creating any sense of surprise. Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps the story firmly planted in 1990, which makes it an aesthetic period piece, and does little to help either of his leads — the elfin Samantha Barks as Vivian and the square-jawed Andy Karl as Edward — discover real chemistry or more than a superficial sense of who these people are (Edward: Repressed, Brooding, Workaholic. Vivian: Quirky, Undaunted, Still Innocent — in short, Manic Pixie Dream Prostitute). Instead, Mitchell settles for the most depressingly comfortable kind of entertainment, a paint-by-numbers affair calculated to please us with recreations of images we’ve seen before. In the performance I saw, the audience clapped for Vivian’s iconic costumes — the blonde bob and thigh-high boots, the polka-dot polo dress, the off-shoulder red ball gown, all dutifully recreated here by Gregg Barnes — with more genuine excitement than it applauded her solos.

And no wonder, when the music and lyrics, written by rocker Bryan Adams and his long-time collaborator Jim Vallance, are so aggressively mediocre. Sitting here writing this, I’m looking at the song list in the show’s program and realizing that — less than 24 hours after leaving the theater — I can’t recall a single tune. Perhaps a couple of single-line vocal riffs that approximate the same kind of vanilla rock catchiness as, say, “Summer of 69,” but that’s it. Lyrically, things only get worse. The majority of Pretty Woman’s songs are so verbally dull they almost feel like self-parodies (the meet-the-rich-people number, “Welcome to Our World,” which takes place at a swanky polo match, perhaps is a kind of parody of My Fair Lady’s “Ascot Gavotte,” but without a hint of its show-stopping wit). Even their titles are anodyne, as if picked from some handbook of basic human sentiments around which to structure songs: “Anywhere But Here,” “Something About Her,” “I Could Get Used to This,” “Never Give Up on a Dream,” “I Can’t Go Back,” “Together Forever.” Karl’s Edward is especially burdened with elementary-school rhymes, which he muscles through with the knitted brow and earnest, I’m-hurting-inside growl of a true ’90s rock frontman. It’s a kind of achievement, keeping a straight face while singing lines like “What a strange night / And yet it feels right … She could show me / Who I could really be” and “A sudden chance encounter / Should I have just refused? / I asked her for directions / And now I feel confused.” Maybe that second one deserves props, though, as it’s among the few lyrics in the show that dare to pair words of more than one syllable.

At two and a half hours, the musical has added only 30 minutes to the length of the movie, and it still manages to feel draggy and overpadded. Pretty Woman is a tight, smartly structured film, which makes sticking songs into its narrative a risky endeavor: If they don’t further the plot (and it’s hard for them to do that since the writers want to preserve so much of the original dialogue), they’ve got to serve other purposes, like providing atmosphere or deepening character. But Adams and Vallance’s songs never push the characters beyond the most hackneyed outlines of desire (“I want more,” “I don’t belong here,” “I wanna feel the wind in my hair”), and the atmosphere they evoke is pure fluff. The way the ensemble members, tarted up as the most cheerful streetwalkers imaginable, smile and cavort during relentlessly uplifting numbers like “Never Give Up on a Dream” takes any sense of grit or grimness out of the world where Vivian’s story begins. When, early in the show, she encounters a crime scene where a prostitute has been killed and left in a dumpster, the nasty scenario is impossible to take seriously: This Hollywood Boulevard is downright family friendly — it’s even presided over by a twinkle-eyed, soft-shoeing M.C. that the program calls “Happy Man.” Eric Anderson is doing the best he can as this waggish narrator figure, a dual role with Barney Thompson, the fairy godfather–like manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, who befriends Vivian and nudges Edward in the right direction. But he’s saddled with songs whose only purpose is to stop the story’s action in order to make a desperate attempt at injecting some charm. He’s charming, but the antics he’s got to go through — from peddling dreams to dancing hustlers to waltzing with the cartoonish hotel bellboy, Giulio (Tommy Bracco) — are full-on failures of fun.

Like the magical, shape-shifting compère that he is, Anderson also makes an appearance as the conductor when Edward takes Vivian to the opera, rising up out of the Nederlander’s actual orchestra pit to wink at us and, with a wave of his baton, bring Verdi’s La Traviata to life. In Marshall’s movie, the opera sequence was a clever extra layer – it’s a tragic romance about a prostitute and a wealthy man — as well as a way to give the stuffy, financially ruthless Edward, who admits to a “love at first sight” for the soaring art form, something like a soul. Here, as the ensemble members Brian Calì and the big-voiced Allison Blackwell throw themselves into Alfredo and Violetta, the brief, goosebump-inducing strains of Verdi only serve to highlight the blandness of the musical’s own score. Again, poor Karl, who’s got to compete with the opera singers by crooning, between their flights, lyrics like “Darlin’, you look beautiful tonight / I can’t remember ever seeing anything so right.”

I’m coming down heavy on nostalgia this week, but here’s the thing about that particular narcotic: It’s an aftereffect of a piece of art, not a starting point for one. As such, it’s fine for movies and, to a certain extent, even for pop music and books. Nostalgia is about objects, things that, no matter the changes in ourselves or the world, will always remain what they are — what they were to us when we first fell in love with them. It’s okay to love Garry Marshall movies, or Weezer albums, or Charles Dickens novels, and it’s possible to love them while acknowledging that none of them do much to create a world that sees women as actual, full human beings. But theater isn’t an object, it’s an event. It brings together huge groups of people and large amounts of money to make something right now, something that, because it lives in the present, owes a different kind of attention to that moment. Theater can examine nostalgia — poignantly, as in Follies, or playfully, as in The Drowsy Chaperone — but it can’t simply manufacture the drug for its viewers without any internal interrogation. Such intentional, one-sided sentimentality, mostly a benign recreational intoxicant when we pull up Pretty Woman on Netflix, is fatal to a live performance. Nowhere is it harder to pass off old attitudes, old tropes, old images — even ones we love — than in the theater. And Pretty Woman — with its production team that features only two women, the makeup designer and an associate producer — is both built on old structures and, despite those girl-power marketing adjectives, suffused with old ideas. It offers little more than the nearby Disney or M&M’s outposts in Times Square: something expensive and sugary and more linked to the comfort of our memories than to the real, roiling life of our moment.

Pretty Woman: The Musical is at the Nederlander Theatre.

Theater: Pretty Woman and the Trouble With Onstage Nostalgia