There seems to be a large number of projects lately that use an iconic film as the blueprint for musical theatrical success. Mean Girls, Frozen, and School of Rockhave all managed to find something new and intriguing within the movie framework to give themselves a reason for being. The book and music have each created something special, as the creators understand that one can’t just take the same straightforward approach, utilizing each memorable line and adored setup in the exact same manner of the film. Moulin Rouge, a new Broadway-bound musical that I was fortunate enough to see in Boston, held tight to the things we loved but added a whole lot of surprise and then reshuffled its context to keep us tingling and engaged. Mean Girls did the same, giving us each and every celebrated cinematic line that we were all desperate to hear, without ever losing a sense of newness and exciting elevation, which was totally fetch. It’s about the balance of giving us the classic feel of the road while keeping us looking out the window at the specialness of the journey’s horizon.
Andy Karl, an actor who brought energetic charisma to another movie-to-musical Broadway show, Groundhog Day plays Edward Lewis, a man lost in the acquiring world of domination and detached deconstruction, who is in desperate need of a new way to drive forward. Getting in that hot sports car and not his traditional limousine, Karl does a wonderful job creating his own unique take on the slightly cardboard cut-out character that Richard Gere most magnificently charmed his way through. He’s saddled with some pretty difficult songs to sell, like the one note “Something About Her” and “You’re Beautiful” written by the Canadian rock legend, Bryan Adams and his collaborator of nearly 40 years, Jim Vallance. They aren’t bad songs at all, sounding like a blend of country and rock that I would gladly listen to on a long drive to Vegas, with Karl lifting them up higher with a very Adams-like growl and grind, but as musical theater pieces, they are slightly one note and don’t really drive the idea forward into any new terrain. Karl’s song, “Freedom” is country rockstar great, but when it first cruises in near the end of Act I, it doesn’t really make as much sense as it does when it is reprised in Act II. Regardless, Karl finds charm and an essence all of his own within this adaptation, and takes us for an authentic spin that keeps us guessing as much as the tightly constricted piece allows.
The two that really do the magically balancing act the best are the two secondaries; the magnificently voiced Orfeh (Janis Joplin in Love, Janis – a show I now wish I had been lucky enough to have seen) as Kit De Luca and Eric Anderson (Mr. O’Malley in the film “The Greatest Showman“) as both the ‘Happy Man’ welcoming us to Hollywood with the question of the night, “What’s your dream?” and the gentile Mr. Thompson, manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Both do the hired job that is required, saying their classic lines like “Cindafuckin’rella“, by finding a way to add their own flavor to the gas that is driving the machine. When the two come together for “Never Give Up on a Dream“, Pretty Woman finds its center and its full-throttled drive, accelerating the musical quickly to a more heavenly place by the Hollywood sign. Jason Danieley (Broadway’s The Visit) as the slimy Philip Stuckey and Ezra Knight (Ivo Van Hove’s A View From the Bridge) as business man James Morse, with the very handsome Robby Clater (59E59’s Connected) at his devoted side, hit their marks and arrive on time like a well cared for Uber, clearly knowing what they are there to do.
In a musical that rarely transcend the material in a way that ignites, there are a few exceptions, possibly residing in the elevator with the adorable Tommy Bracco’s (PAA’s The Hairy Ape) or in the fun dance number that replaces the seated dinner party of four. Sorry, there isn’t a “slippery little suckers” redo here, which is fine, because what this musical needs throughout is more detours like this moment. Forgive me if I can’t quite name the song, as the joy resides elsewhere with most of the music, even when good, clearly not managing to attach itself solidly to the story,. It feels at best a “Long Way Home” to reality from the ridiculous “Rodeo Drive“, probably the silliest number I’ve seen on a Broadway stage in a long time both musically and staging. That we can give thanks to the simplistic and generic 80’s choreography by the usually much better Jerry Mitchell (PMP’s Half Time) who also directed this adaptation with the feeling of a caged animal, locked into a movie formula, doing the same old taught tricks, and looking for a financial treat.
“It must be difficult to let go of something so beautiful“, says Mr Thompson about Vivian, played by the absolutely stunning Samantha Barks (Éponine in the West End and Universal Film’s Les Misérables), as the hooker with the heart of gold and a dream to escape to “Anywhere but Here“. She looks incredible, clearly not found on “976-BABE“, especially in that first iconic Hollywood Blvd streetwalker outfit made infamous by Julia Roberts, and sells that first song as strongly as she can. Unfortunately, she isn’t given much wiggle or leg room in this star vehicle, as the map to the stars is so clearly defined by Julia Roberts and her iconic portrayal. Barks laughs big on its jewelrycase-snapping cue and delivers each and every line with determination and energy. “Mine’s broken” and it sort of is, as her performance feels more like a mimicking act, playing the role of Roberts playing Vivian, rather than finding her own class act somewhere inside. It made me dream of other actors who would have taken the iconic role and tweaked it to their liking, like how Jenna Russell and Annaleigh Ashford made Dot their own in the role made famous by Bernadette Peters in Sunday in the Park With George, or how Harvey Fierstein erased Divine from our minds when he played Edna Turnblad, the gravelly-voiced mother to Hairspray‘s Tracy.
This slice of originality is what clearly is missing, but the musical looks shiny and solid, with a clearly inventive set by David Rockwell (Broadway’s Lobby Hero), replica-like costumes by Gregg Barnes (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting), and slightly obvious spot lighting by Kenneth Posner & Philip S. Rosenberg (Broadway’s Hairspray). In a smartly centered box, the red-dressed night at the opera is especially well staged positioning itself with a non-traditional vantage point and an immersive dynamic flair. It sounds just as good as it looks as well, with glorious vocals cascading out of Allison Blackwell (Live From Lincoln Center’s Sweeney Todd), and strong music supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations by Will Van Dyke (Broadway’s Wicked) with sound design by John Shivers. But somehow, the team fails to locate moments of absolute surprise and personal uniqueness on this musical map, finding only numerous nostalgic recreations to marvel and smile at with recognition. I would have liked to say, that: “It was so good, I almost peed my Pants!” but I’m just not able. Never giving the leading lady an opportunity to present any originality within the framework of this movie-to-musical remake slows this piece down to a generic crawl, desperate to cry out in the immortal words of Vivian, “Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.”
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