“Pretty Woman: The Musical” tells a dated-at-best story that has made a few, incremental improvements since its initial Broadway tryout here in 2018.
The 1980s-set musical directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell still follows the plot set forth in the 1990 rom-com that cemented Julia Roberts’ star status and revived Richard Gere’s leading-man chops. This is “Cinderella,” only the title character is your basic sex worker with a heart of gold.
Our heroine/trope-come-to-life is Vivian Ward (Olivia Valli, granddaughter of legendary singer Frankie Valli) a sex worker (“pro” in the production’s vernacular) who yearns to leave the biz. She gets the chance to do just that when rich, handsome businessman Edward Lewis (Adam Pascal) hires her for six days to be at his “beck and call.”
The question driving the plot: Will Viv and Ed stay together after their six-day contract is finished? This is a rom-com, not a tragedy, and the answer is obvious from the outset. As in the movie on which it is based, “Pretty Woman: The Musical” is all about peddling soft-focus, rose-colored fantasy rather than anything remotely akin to real life.
There have been tweaks since the show premiered here: The book (by the movie’s director Garry Marshall and screenwriter J. F. Lawton) no longer includes a dead sex worker in a dumpster in its opening scenes. It does have a clever level of self-referential humor at times, such as when lyricists/composers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance rhyme “platinum card” with “let’s hit him hard.” Also on the plus side: The score has enough money notes to buy an entire K-Tel collection of 1980s power ballads.
The book takes pains to give lip service to Viv’s supposed autonomy, which her best friend Kit De Luca (Jessica Crouch, nailing the sassy-best-friend cliche) repeatedly insists is total because “they say when, where, who” they turn tricks with. (Nobody ever uses the word “trick” in this sanitized take on sex work.) A scene where a pimp shakes Kit down and demands his cut of her earnings shows that for what it is: malarky, packaged as empowerment.
Mitchell creates plenty of visually pleasing dance numbers. “You and I” soars with operatic grace. The opening “Welcome to Hollywood” sets the scene with energy to spare. But he also stumbles at times. When Vivian and Edward have sex, they do so with a corps of gracefully twirling dancers surrounding them, providing a gauzy skim of flowy skirts whenever things threaten to go beyond first base. It plays like something out of a Barbara Cartland novel, as illustrated by Cosmo editorials.
Yet even when cheese abounds, the cast sells the material.
Adam Pascal’s bad-boy growl sounds as good as it did in 1996, when he created the role of Roger in “Rent.” His delivery of “Freedom” shows precisely why he’s a bona fide Broadway star. Valli’s Vivian has pipes for days and is credibly feisty. She also brings a fittingly calculated artifice to her physical vocabulary as Vivian and Ed negotiate the terms of their deal. Tellingly, her body language changes along with her character as the plot progresses.
The supporting characters include a breakout performance from Kyle Taylor Parker as the Happy Man, a sort of fairy godfather who holds the story together and keeps it moving with luminous charisma and seemingly effortless footwork reminiscent of a young Ben Vereen. And as the opera star Violetta, who transfixes Vivian with her soaring soprano, Amma Osei will knock your socks off.
Hint: Stick around for the entire curtain call. Otherwise, you’ll miss a rollicking, infectiously joyful all-cast take on Roy Orbison and Bill Dee’s iconic title tune. It would be better if it were incorporated into the production at some point before curtain call, but it is irresistibly entertaining nonetheless.