Fresh from its three-week stop at the Dolby Theater, Hollywood’s official home for the Academy Awards, the first national tour of the stage musical adaptation of the L.A.-set romantic comedy PRETTY WOMAN—that popular movie about a Hollywood hooker who finds unexpected romance from a rich client—has made the short drive down the freeway to OC’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa for a two-week engagement ending July 17, 2022.
Based on the 1990 box office hit released by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures that was directed by the late Garry Marshall—and, of course, made a bonafide star out of Julia Roberts—the 2018 Broadway adaptation features a very faithful book written by the film’s original screenwriters J.F. Lawton and Garry Marshall, and brand new music composed by 80’s rock star Bryan Adams and songwriting partner Jim Vallance. Along with direction and choreography by KINKY BOOTS’ Jerry Mitchell, on paper this show should have been a winning smash all around.
Alas, as it stands now—even with that exuberant curtain call finalé that finally treats the audience to a rousing sing-along of Roy Orbison’s classic “Oh, Pretty Woman,” the very song that inspired the title—the stage show, as I experienced during its Opening Night performance this past Tuesday night, is an overall mixed bag, blending nostalgic light-rock throwbacks to late 80’s/early 90’s clichés with a valiantly entertaining and clearly enthusiastic, super talented ensemble cast giving it their collective A-level best with the material they’ve been given.
Judging by how faithful this version velcro’s itself to its late 80’s source material, those fond of the hit movie and want to see it translated with an almost direct through-line to that original will likely enjoy most if not all of this production—considering writers Lawton and Marshall have basically constructed an almost verbatim translation of the film for its stage iteration, albeit with just a few minor cosmetic tweaks here and there to accommodate a theatrical and musicalized presentation.
As one might expect, some of those minor tweaks are better than others, naturally (Spoiler Alert: that memorable ending in the movie happens… um, differently here).
See, the thing about adapting a very specific property—especially one that’s quite beloved by a broader (now aging) audience—is that inevitable comparisons to the original are just too difficult to ignore, even if they may seem unfair. Perhaps the most significant aspect in PRETTY WOMAN that will likely draw the most comparisons can be found in the person tasked with the title character herself.
Let’s be honest here… the movie’s enjoyment factor is elevated mostly because of Roberts’ sensational screen performance, branded with that signature “megawatt” smile, a sassy, self-assured persona that can spar with/seduce men in her midst, while also displaying a palpable vulnerability that makes us empathize with her character. Roberts has fine-tuned this skillset to the point that it’s become a synonymous trait present in many of her other movie roles like we’ve see in Steel Magnolias, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Erin Brockovich.
For this touring production, the actor tasked with the title role of Vivian Ward—the vivacious Hollywood Boulevard prostitute armed with street smarts, big dreams, and (somewhat) personal autonomy—is the talented Olivia Valli, who, for the most part, does an admirable job for making the role her own. Vocal-wise, Valli sounds terrific, particularly during songs that require her to belt notes to the stratosphere or rock out. She’s also got the sassy, sexy part of Vivian down pat, making the notion of her convincing her latest customer to fork over $3,000 to be her “escort” for the week a believable prospect.
But, unfortunately, the side effect of making the role one’s own means there’s likely a tonal departure from what Roberts cemented memorably in her multi-layered performance. And for a show hell-bent in recreating the story and tone to match the intent and vibe of the original movie, this becomes a bit of a problem. Maybe it might be the way the stage show was written and/or directed, but this Vivian is more brassy than sensitive, more irrational than intuitive, more lustful than vulnerable. It’s also possible that this version of Vivian just doesn’t fit our more modern sensibilities anymore.
It certainly didn’t help either that the show’s version of Vivian’s uber-wealthy client/love interest Edward Lewis—here played by RENT alum Adam Pascal—feels much more aloof and non-plussed versus the movie’s more affable, amusingly-smitten Edward played so charmingly by Richard Gere. While Pascal’s unmistakable signature vocals do fit perfectly with this musical’s rock-tinged score, the character he’s tasked to take on during the show’s “book” parts felt just a bit too passive and, at times, even a bit detached.
Still, while the two actors’ portraits of their respective roles aren’t quite what the show was probably expecting, both Valli and Pascal do possess genuine talents for musical theater, and their mutual strengths are clearly evident in the way they tackle the show’s power-heavy musical numbers (the songs themselves are fine and do conform to the era’s rock sound, but most are kinda just… meh).
While I didn’t love PRETTY WOMAN – THE MUSICAL, I certainly didn’t loathe it either, especially with the amount of laughter and smiles that came out of me and the audience throughout various points in the show. Positive highlights include David Rockwell’s cheesy-chic late 80’s Hollywood set designs, lit perfectly by lighting designers Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg; Gregg Barnes’ 80’s-inspired vintage costumes (with many faithful frock recreations of iconic film moments); and, of course, Mitchell’s dynamic, high-energy choreography that is super fun to watch.
I also appreciated how well this show sounded. I can’t remember the last time a visiting national tour’s sound balance was so well-executed at Segerstrom Hall: the cast microphones were set at an optimal, clearly-heard volume while the hard-rockin’ orchestra—conducted by musical director Daniel Klintworth—didn’t overpower those voices, despite the score’s tendency for piercing 80’s rock anthem moments.
And, finally, this touring production’s best asset is arguably its engaging ensemble cast filled with multiple, cheer-inducing scene stealers (I’m looking at you Jessica Crouch, Kyle Taylor Parker, Trent Soyster, and Amma Osei) that, frankly, do end up becoming the show’s saving grace.
Crouch sounds amazeballs as Vivian’s BFF/roommate/fellow hooker Kit De Luca who provides many of the show’s stellar vocal gymnastics. I absolutely loved Parker—who, in a welcome enhancement from the film—plays multiple meta roles that include “Happy Man” (who acts as the show’s street-level narrator) as well as the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s sympathetic hotel manager (played in the film by Hector Elizondo) who aids Vivian in looking and acting the part of a tycoon’s posh girlfriend. Parker sprinkles the role with lots of playful fun and sarcasm that the audience truly enjoyed. Adorable scene-stealer Soyster is a cute presence as hotel bellhop Giulio. And the jaw-dropping singing Osei contributes to the show—including a turn as the lead Soprano diva in a production of the opera La Traviata—was utterly mesmerizing.
To be honest, after experiencing a glut of stage adaptations of 80’s/90’s properties of late, I found myself wanting to root for this musical adaptation more, rather than just spend time nitpicking at its flaws like I have with most of those other “new” shows. While it certainly wasn’t hard to spot these flaws as they blasted out with each passing minute (that diamond necklace moment in the movie was recreated here, and becomes a bit yikes), I have to say that I enjoyed many more parts of PRETTY WOMAN: THE MUSICAL than I anticipated going into it.
Sure, it would have been nice if the show was less a rehash of dated situations and more a fresh revamp that acknowledges progress (with a wink). But in our current modern world where our problems are so much more dire and serious and, frankly, life-threatening, a few hours of nostalgic escapism where a street-savvy, sassy hooker can find true love with her John doesn’t seem like such a waste of time.
Photos by Matthew Murphy (Murphy Made), courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of PRETTY WOMAN – THE MUSICAL continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through July 17, 2022. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.