By Sharon Eberson
More than 30 years ago, we couldn’t get enough of Pretty Woman, which ranks among the highest-grossing rom-coms of all time. With a title taken from one of the most popular rock songs ever, it would seem to be a no-brainer to reimagine the movie as a musical.
Times and tastes have changed since audiences swooned for the chemistry between Richard Gere and emerging star Julia Roberts. Today, it’s hard to ignore the elements of the supposed Cinderella story – more My Fair Lady, really, only with sex – that fit firmly in the cringe-worthy category.
Those integral parts of the storyline are still very much present in Pretty Woman the Musical, a fast-paced journey to the past that is sexy, stylish, and even moving while still eliciting some hard-to-ignore cringes.
It is obvious that the talented team that put together Pretty Woman the Musical counts heavily on nostalgia to outweigh the more unsavory aspects in the tale of sex worker Vivian and ruthless businessman Edward hooking up and taking an unsteady ride toward a happily-ever-after.
The national tour now at the Benedum Center also boasts musical theater luminary Adam Pascal, who for some will forever be struggling rocker Roger in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent.
At first, it is a bit jolting to see Pascal as a Gordon Gekko type, rocking tailored suits and a man who denies his personal comfort in favor of whatever is deemed “the best.” However, it is not at all surprising that his vocal talents are rock-solid in songs by pop star Bryan Adams and Jim Vailance. There’s no doubt that Pascal’s distinctive voice can handle traditional Broadway and has a lot in common with some of Adams’ best-known vocals – for example, I’d wager that Pascal can cover the heck out of “Summer of ’69.”
It’s also noteworthy that Gere, a song-and-dance man early in his career, played Chicago‘s Billy Flynn on screen – a role Pascal has played on Broadway.
The role of Edward is especially ripe for a musical, letting out the inner voice of a man who is outwardly a cold-hearted businessman.
Playing the aspirational sex worker Vivian who enthralls Edward and leaves nothing unsaid, is Olivia Valli, granddaughter of the Four Seasons’ Franki Valli.
No doubt, Roberts is a tough act to follow, but Valli has a lovely voice that is unfaltering at any rage. Her modern-day Eliza Doolittle is a challenge Edward decides to take on after meeting her while asking for directions (yeah, right). It starts out as a one-night stand, but he’s intrigued enough to make an offer Vivian can’t refuse. She will spend a week by his side as he closes out a deal to kill a family-owned shipping company, and she will get $3,000.
Of course, they each change the other’s perspective on love and … well, not on what money can buy.
What works best in Pretty Woman is the main characters’ overall striving to be better and do better, plus some nifty musical numbers given wings by director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell and a fine cast.
For those of us nostalgic for the fashion of the 1990 movie, that well-documented red gown and sparkling necklace are celebrated here. But for me, what was missing was the polo-scene dress, which sent every knock-off designer scrambling for fabric of brown with white polka dots. The wide-brim hats, too, were tamer than in the movie, which seems like a missed opportunity for the stage.
In fact, the wow moment as far as costuming goes is a quick change by “Happy Man,” who goes in an instant from street hustler peddling Hollywood dreams to the kindly manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Edward and Vivian spend their week of, um, getting close.
On opening night at the Benedum Tuesday, Jonathan Ritter replaced Kyle Taylor Parker, and Ritter’s timing and presence not only spread happiness as multiple characters, but he also was particularly light on his feet. As the hotel’s go-to bellhop, Giulio, Matthew, Vincent Taylor was a joy to watch, providing physical comedy and panache when teaming with Ritter in a rollicking ballroom-dance number.
As the manager, Ritter treats Valli’s vulnerable Vivian with respect and inspires confidence in her. As opposed to Edward, who spends much of his time showing her that money can buy anything. Including people who, in a scene right out of the movie, will suck up to you even if they find you repulsive.
Money is seen both as vulgar and as the overarching means to any end. Edward sings about longing for freedom, but it is excruciatingly obvious that his money gives him and, eventually, Vivian the freedom to choose their paths.
The musical’s most memorable set-piece and moving scene is when Edward takes Vivian, bedecked in that red gown and borrowed jewels, to La Traviata.” Of course, they have the best seats in the house on a decorative perch above the performance.
While Vivian is transfixed and the opera swirls around them, Pascal’s Edward watches her. He sings “You and I,” mingling his feelings with opera singers Amma Osei as Violetta and Christian Douglas as Alfredo, an enchanting effect.
The scene is in stark contrast to Vivian’s life on the street and the loud company she keeps. As Kit, Jessica Crouch portrays a brassy prostitute who befriended Vivian when the smalltown Georgia native was down and out. Kit says and sings everything without a lot of subtlety but a lot of heart – you know the type – and has surprising aspirations of her own.
Kit sees potential in Vivian, while lawyer Philip Stuckey (Pittsburgh native and CMU alum Matthew Stocke) views her as a threat.
The smarmy Stuckey is Edward’s longtime sidekick in killing companies for profit. His treatment of anyone who gets in the way of making money comes as no surprise, although his viciousness toward Vivian is disturbing.
Overall, Mitchell (Kinky Boots) has made some tweaks to the tour of Pretty Woman, striving for a lighter tone from its Broadway run.
With that in mind, my intention when I arrived was to watch the musical as a time capsule and enjoy talented people performing a romantic, mostly traditional show. I knew it would be a departure from the previous PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh show, Oklahoma! a classic that has been updated for shocking impact.
This felt like the absolute right moment for a romantic comedy with some sentimental attachments.
The book that adheres so closely to the movie is by screenwriter J.P. Lawton and the original director, the late Garry Marshall, who is said to have been the driving force in bringing the film to the stage.
A theatrical exception comes when a solo guitarist appears as the second act opens. He’s about to sing Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” the song that inspired it all, but is stopped and told, “Not yet.” The song comes as just the right note for the end of a nostalgia trip, after the big-kiss finish and audience ovation.
At the Benedum Center through Sunday, Feb. 6. Tickets: https://trustarts.org/production/69947/pretty-woman-the-musical or call 412-456-4800.