Review: “Pretty Woman: The Musical” at DCPA in Denver
“Pretty Woman: The Musical” carries a sequined chip on its shoulder — namely, to prove it’s just as much fun as its 1990 movie namesake.
The touring Broadway production, playing the Buell Theatre through Aug. 14, deploys all available charms to lock eyes with fans of the film, drawing them into its familiar changes of fortune and heart. In newly expanded musical form, and with powerhouse vocals at the fore, it bear-hugged the “Cinderella” plot on its opening, Tuesday-night show until all eyes were bulging.
That includes both hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Vivian (Olivia Valli) and tunnel-visioned businessman Edward (Adam Pascal), who echo one other as they struggle with their exploitative work. Well, Edward, anyway. Vivian is honest and in charge as a prostitute on Hollywood Boulevard. Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s take on Edward, however, is extra oblivious to Edward’s capitalistic soullessness, with Pascal playing it safe until the end.
Along with its PG-13, lightly sexualized take on “Cinderella” and “Pygmalion,” the story continues to situate our mismatched protagonists in a late 1980s/early ’90s milieu of rank materialism. Pink-and-blue color schemes, brightly patterned costumes and restrained period touches (the shoebox-sized cellphone elicited hearty laughs) help sell the vibe, with intimate and wonderfully efficient sets by David Rockwell.
The book by the late, great Garry Marshall, who directed the movie, and original “Pretty Woman” screenwriter J.F. Lawton grafts authority from the film. At this point, more than three decades on, the stage version knows exactly what it is and who it’s for.
And yet, the low-aiming music and lyrics by pop-rock mainstay Bryan Adams and fellow Canuck Jim Vallance are a missed opportunity. They do nothing to freshen the themes lying just beneath the surface, let alone comment on them in this age of overt discrimination and robbing women of the rights to their own bodies.
That’s not too different from the movie, which glosses over the realities of sex work and other complex subjects because it’s a heteronormative rom-com, not a documentary. But the facile book robs this earnest, fast-paced show of the chance to even observe how U.S. culture has changed since 1990. Which is a lot.
Instantly familiar-sounding power ballads and wanky guitar solos, injected with cliché-ridden lyrics, can sometimes be overlooked in favor of the cast’s skill. That includes the versatile Kyle Taylor Parker, essentially the musical’s third lead. He flits from streetwise guide Happy Man to Beverly Wilshire Hotel concierge Barney Thompson with barely a breath.
Parker’s instant, immense likability lifts every ounce of his intimidating tasks. Like the ensemble’s work, his high notes and light steps are joyful to behold, particularly on the invigorating “Don’t Forget to Dance.” The cheeky ballroom formality and classic, mid-20th-century pop finds our male ensemble ladling warm harmonies and old-school stage magic over Parker’s crisp lead.
Valli wisely avoids channeling Roberts’ movie spirit for a brassier take on Vivian, at times approaching Lady Gaga’s belting persona but also her vulnerability in 2018’s “A Star Is Born.” Valli isn’t given much to do between songs other than stare at the rafters and fret, but the busy ensemble downplays her relative lack of motion. Taking one’s eyes off Valli in most scenes — she’s a veteran of the second national tour of “Wicked” — is difficult, but when Edward escorts Vivian to San Francisco to see “La traviata,” we’ve got another high point.
A pair of ensemble members, notably Amma Osei, take center stage to re-create passages from the opera’s parallel story. For a moment you wonder why Osei is slumming it in this production, her voice as wide and gorgeous as an Italian fresco. Edward’s affecting love of the art form is also one of Pascal’s more tender moments, and Osei’s powerful voice tells us why.
But Pascal — Tony-nominated for his work in “Rent” — feels miscast as Edward, and not simply because of his lack of chemistry with Valli. He steers clear of Gere’s movie persona but skips over finding his own, making his journey from vulture capitalist to good-hearted dude feel absurd. Even acknowledging the built-in and seemingly simplistic, guilty pleasures (usually a male-applied term to discount anything that’s not a depressing drama), that realization dampens the mood.
Criticizing “Pretty Woman” for being shallow misses the point of its feel-good, crowd-pleasing aims. Jessica Crouch, as Vivian’s streetwalking buddy Kit De Luca, is never less than essential in her sassy, energetic numbers. Like the rest of the leads, she belts with regularity, soaring on high notes that nearly fulfill the music’s soulful promise.
If only the songs and book honored the cast’s performances and the crew’s production care, we’d have a show that offers a little something new — even if that’s not what fans are looking for.
If you go
“Pretty Woman: The Musical.” The touring, Broadway production based on the 1990 movie, presented by Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Through Aug. 14 at the Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St. at the Denver Arts Complex. Tickets: $35-$125 via 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org
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