‘Pretty Woman: The Musical’ delivers a heartfelt homage to a beloved film

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Samantha Barks and Steve Kazee in a scene from “Pretty Woman: The Musical.” | Matthew Murphy Photo

Like the much-beloved film on which it is based, “Pretty Woman: The Musical” is a fairy tale for grown-ups. And that’s a very good thing. And while the musical, which opened in its pre-Broadway run Wednesday night at the Oriental Theatre, thankfully stays true to the heart of the film as each familiar scene unfolds, there are some bumps in the road along the way to happily ever after.

There is so much to like here, starting with Samantha Barks, whose portrayal of Vivian, the prostitute with a heart of gold, is every bit as endearing on stage as Julia Roberts’ was on film.  Barks’ megawatt smile lights up the stage, her powerhouse voice packs an emotional punch to every note she sings, especially with the anthem-like “This Is My Life” and “I Can’t Go Back.” As Edward, Tony Award winner Steve Kazee is still finding his way out from under the shadow of Richard Gere, but he’s on the cusp. Part of the problem may be that stage Edward, a multi-millionaire-turned-prince charming, is almost too dysfunctional to rescue the enchanting Vivian. Kazee has a captivating stage presence, and his gorgeous singing voice delivers the show’s hauntingly beautiful ballad “You and I” with plenty of conviction and sincerity.

‘Pretty Woman: The Musical’ ★★★ When: Through April 15 Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Tickets: $33-$125 Info: broadwayinchicago.com Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission

With a book by the late Garry Marshall (who directed the 1990 film) and the film’s screenwriter J.F. Lawton (the stage adaptation never strays too far from the screenplay), and original music and lyrics by Grammy winner Bryan Adams and his longtime collaborator Jim Vallance, the musical (which moves to Broadway this summer) is directed and choreographed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell, who knows a thing or two about turning hit films into Broadway musicals (“Kinky Boots,” “Legally Blonde”).  But “Pretty Woman” the film is in a league of its own, and the stage version doesn’t quite hit it out of the park — yet.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of clear distinction between Vivian’s gritty, streetwise existence and Edward’s world of all things ridiculously extravagant. David Rockwell’s sets are minimalist,  perhaps too much so. There is little wow to Edward’s hotel penthouse — and there needs to be a lot of it, because this is his castle. Vivian (and the audience) needs that moment of being overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all, from the moment she enters the hotel lobby to the moment she steps foot in what’s supposed to be one of the most lavish penthouse suites in Beverly Hills.  Her Rodeo Drive shopping trip needs more upper-crust snobbiness to break our heroine’s heart if the redemption scene later on is to be sweet revenge indeed. And the scene where everything changes, where Vivian finally breaks her own rule and kisses Edward on the lips, seemed almost anticlimactic.

Problematic, too, are the jolting scene changes, which at times bring the flow of the staging to the brink of annoying.  The big, splashy ensemble numbers (save for a delightful tango-inspired outing) could benefit from some minor tweaks to help bring an added pinch of cohesiveness to the production.

Gregg Barnes’ costumes are period-perfect, impeccably chic where they simply must be, and he smartly retains several of the familiar favorites (including those sky-high black boots) rendered iconic by the film. Vivian’s unforgettable red dress (it should have its own Twitter handle) is present, though its entrance (and this dress needs to make an entrance) was short on wow factor. Barks is stunning to be sure, but much like any princess on her way to the ball, she must make a grand entrance in her gorgeous gown. Alas, Vivian merely walks onto the stage; there is no time for Edward (nor the audience) to drink in the moment.

In the invaluable supporting roles, the multifaceted Eric Anderson ingeniously pulls double duty as Mr. Thompson, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel manager, and Happy Man, the street sage who welcomes one and all to Hollywood (and a few other minor characters smartly peppered throughout the play). Anderson takes command of a scene from the moment he enters until the moment he exits. Stepping into the role of Kit, Vivian’s pal and co-prostitute, is the mighty-voiced Orfeh. Kit is Vivian’s sounding board and confident, but alas, there can be only one princess in this fairy tale. Orfeh rocks the rafters in several of the show’s biggest production numbers, but there’s no “down time” for her, no power ballad wherein Kit’s soul is laid bare (after all, Edward could have been her customer).  As Philip Stuckey, Edward’s smarmy attorney with an insatiable appetite for vicious dealmaking, Jason Danieley (a veteran of Broadway and Chicago stages) is never allowed to truly craft the total jerk Stuckey needs to be. And I would be remiss not to mention ensemble member Allison Blackwell, who steps into the spotlight as Violetta in the famous night at the opera scene. Her soaring soprano delivers powerhouse snippets of  Verdi’s “La traviata.”

Mitchell has crafted a fine homage to the film on which his musical is based, and with a few minor tweaks (that’s what pre-Broadway runs are all about) the musical will fully blossom. In the meantime, just as in the film, we are transported to a world where the fairy tale happy ending is inevitable. Edward will rescue his Princess Vivian, and she will “rescue him right back.” And we are happily swept away by the romance of it all.

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