Saturday 29 February 2020

Theatre review: Pretty Woman

It's the film that made a generation of little girls write "crack whore" in their "what I want to be when I grow up" essays, so it was only a matter of time before Pretty Woman got turned into a musical. The movie's enduring popularity means that there was always going to be a ready-made audience for it, so the question was going to be whether the creatives would put in much effort, or just figure that the cash will roll in whatever the reviews say. One positive sign is that instead of the unholy union of jukebox musical and film adaptation (neither of which are necessarily a problem on their own, but together...) we've got original songs by, of all people, Bryan Adams and his long-time songwriting partner Jim Vallance. On the other hand neither of them had written for musical theatre before, which has a tendency to go one of two ways.

The story remains that of Sunset Boulevard prostitute Vivian (Aimie Atkinson,) picked up off her street corner by multi-millionaire asset-stripper Edward (Danny Mac) when he needs directions to his hotel.

After hiring her for the night off the back of the timeless romantic principle of "well she's here now, might as well bang her," he offers her $3000 to spend the week as his escort, someone to have on his arm at business dinners who won't complicate matters with anything awkward like having a personality. Needless to say not only does she have a personality but it's one he falls in love with, while she also falls for his... Well I'd say his personality but you've probably seen the film, you already know he doesn't have one. She falls in love with not having to be a crack whore which, fair enough.

Jerry Mitchell's production has a book by the film's original screenwriter J.F. Lawton and director Garry Marshall (who died before it was completed,) so it's perhaps no surprise if it sticks incredibly closely to the original script, but it does mean Pretty Woman almost aggressively avoids any element of surprise. Every punchline is familar from the film - fine if, like a lot of the audience, you're happy to mutter them alongside the actors under your breath, but for a romantic comedy it's remarkably short on laughs. In general the production is very loath to give itself an identity of its own, to the point that when Vivian wears a dress in a different colour than in the film, it's notable enough to be lampshaded in the lyrics. Giving concierge Mr Thompson (Bob Harms) a ubiquitous sidekick in enthusiastic bellboy Giulio (Alex Charles, looking uncannily like a young Ethan Embry) is about as far as anyone's willing to go with shaking things up.

Adams and Vallance's songs are functional, with only "I Can't Go Back" really standing out as a showstopper worthy of Atkinson's strong lead performance; yes, I'm glad it's not a jukebox musical but the downside of nobody singing "It Must Have Been Love" is that every song is "well it's fine, but it's no "It Must Have Been Love," is it?" (Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman" does make an - inevitably singalong - appearance as an encore.) I said songwriters not known for musical theatre work can go a couple of ways, and they go the way of songs that sound like a fairly generic idea of what musical theatre sounds like without coming close to reinventing the wheel. What with the music sounding vaguely eighties without being quite as memorable as any of the period's classics, this felt a bit like a less egregious Big, in the sense of trying for eighties nostalgia but managing to miss any sense of irony, or of the fact that the world has moved on.

Which of course brings us to the elephant in the room, that even when it was released in 1990 Pretty Woman raised eyebrows with its premise of a Cinderella story where Cinderella was a prostitute, rescued from her life in the gutter by a man and his money. I mean, I guess if you're going to put a cap on the 1980s you might as well do it in the most 1980s way possible, but it's now 2020 and the story's sexual politics haven't changed. Penny had a feeling that Vivian fighting back when Edward's lawyer (Neil McDermott) attacks her is a change to how it played out in the film, and I'm pretty sure Kit (Rachael Wooding) was a lot more of a victim originally, but that's about it. I'm just throwing crazy ideas around here of course, but what if maybe they'd had at least one female creative on the team? But then it's like the production as a whole: It would be unfair to say that the bare minimum of effort has been put into bringing Pretty Woman to the stage; it's ever so slightly more than the bare minimum. As a result there's not actually much wrong with it, but there's nothing to get excited about either.

Pretty Woman by J.F. Lawton, Garry Marshall, Bryan Adams, Jim Vallance, Roy Orbison and Bill Dees is booking until the 2nd of January at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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