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Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02

While Act One Disappoints, Second Act Finds its Theatrical Footing

Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02

Pretty Woman The Musical - the latest offering in the 2022-23 Broadway at TPAC Series - is one of those shows that almost defies explanation and proves even more difficult to review. (Case in point: I've rewritten that sentence 759 times in the past 22 hours and it just doesn't sing, does it?) Pretty Woman The Musical is a pleasant enough diversion, entertaining even, but there is little in the show's first act to convince most people that the 1990 rom com, which starred Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, needed to be transformed into a glitzy and glittering Broadway musical (a term we use loosely in this case), now with Olivia Valli and Adam Pascal in the leading roles.

The fact is, if you love the movie, the musical is kind of a rip-off, with large chunks of dialogue, memorable comic gags, even iconic costumes rejiggered for a show that sounds derivative and rather ho-hum despite its spicy subject matter. (I confess that I threw up in the back of my mouth a little as I wrote that sentence, but I digress...) There are also some terrific performances by some very talented people, some eye-popping costumes (Gregg Barnes' work is superb) and evocative scenic design by David Rockwell, as well as some swell choreography (thanks to the supremely gifted director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell) to a mostly unmemorable score.

Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02
Adam Pascal and Olivia Valli

The show's book is credited to Garry Marshall, who directed the 1990 film, and J.F. Lawton, who wrote the screenplay, and clearly the two men hoped to recreate lightning in a bottle, only this time with more challenges and higher stakes involved. The musical score (music and lyrics) is by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance and sounds pretty much like everything else you've ever heard by Adams (although the songs in Act Two are better) and the lyrics are syrupy, sophomoric and uninspired.

But there remains the fact that the show is about a hooker who is paid $3,000 to hang out for a week in the penthouse of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, providing good sex and sparkling conversation for a filthy rich corporate raider who comes off like a jerk. The skewed gender roles of Pretty Woman, which were just as problematic when the movie first came out, seem even more distasteful in the 21st Century even if you feel guilty and judgmental thinking a sex worker is somehow less than - seriously, it can keep you awake. Don't even get me started on the recreation of the iconic scenes on Rodeo Drive, in which Vivian is treated with disdain by the uppity saleswomen in the chicest of the chic boutiques - followed by the moment during which she gets her revenge by flashing expensive purchases from other shops paid for with the credit card that belongs to the same man who is paying for her "company" for the week. That's 1990s sexism at its worst.

The dialogue and the storyline are frozen in 1990, for all intents and purposes, meaning that the gender politics and the uneasy feeling you experience throughout Act One are understandable, even if you'd like to consider yourself sophisticated and savvy. It's one thing to watch a hooker, even one with a heart of solid gold, go down on a john in a movie, but it's a whole other thing entirely to be in the same room where it happens as it happens (not that it actually does happen in the musical, but you know damn good and well what Vivian and Edward are getting up to after that blackout).

Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02
Jessica Crouch and Olivia Valli

While I thought about it, slamming back a double bourbon and water during intermission in the Andrew Jackson Hall lobby of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center on opening night, I had an epiphany: I recalled a long-forgotten memory of my own from the late 1990s, something funny yet enormously enlightening in retrospect, that happened at a cocktail party (okay, to jack up the gayness quotient, it was actually a Tony Awards-watching party) and the wise words of a good friend came rushing at me and I was able to let go of my own prejudice and laugh out loud, blowing out the cobwebs of my cloudy memory with the same fierceness Vivian Ward approaches every interaction with Edward Lewis at the Beverly Wilshire in Act One of Pretty Woman The Musical.

At the end of that act, my companion looked at me and said, "well, the music's not very good, but I am entertained." And that certainly seems to sum up the show to that point, although "On a Night Like Tonight" with its Latin rhythms and inspired staging seems rather elevated and somewhat more inspired: it's clearly the most "musical theater" number up to that point.

Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02
Amma Osei

Perhaps it was my halftime epiphany - or the cocktail I drank - but I found that the show's second stanza stood head and shoulders above the first and that somehow Pretty Woman The Musical found its theatrical footing, allowing the audience to see Vivian and Edward as people, rather than stereotypical and frankly troublesome characters, which made Act Two a perfectly fine example of contemporary musical theater, even if there is nothing particularly new or epoch-shattering during the show's last 50 or so minutes. Though hampered by ham-fisted lyrics which leave nothing to the imagination, Valli nonetheless delivers powerful performances of "This is My Life" and "I Can't Go Back."

Review: PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL Plays Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center Through Sunday, 10/02
Adam Pascal and Olivia Valli

When Edward takes Vivian to the opera gala, for a performance of La Traviata, Mitchell stages the scene brilliantly, creating a moment that is richly romantic, very emotional and stunningly sung: "You and I" provides Valli and Pascal a lovely duet, sung in counterpoint to the aria from the opera with startling power. Amma Osei and Jonathan Young are sublime as Verdi's Violetta and Alfredo.

Finally, Pascal and Valli are ideally paired on "Long Way Home," leading into the show's finale, which is pretty much the fairy tale ending Vivian has dreamed of (and which Julia Roberts played first in the movie) and Edward rides to her rescue.

In addition to the performances of Valli and Pascal - and the aforementioned Osei and Young - the production features a very talented ensemble who play various roles throughout the tale. Perhaps none is more notable than Jonathan Ritter, who took on the role of "Happy Man" on opening night and put his wide range of talents on display in his tour de force performance. Trent Soyster is delightful as Giulio and Matthew Stocke is smarmy and duplicitous as Edward's toady Phillip Stuckey.

Jessica Crouch is comfortable in the spotlight as Vivian's best pal Kit DeLuca, and Christian Brailsford is good as David Morse, the scion of the shipbuilding Morse family whose business Edward is keen to procure.

Pretty Woman the Musical. Book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton. Music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Will Van Dyke. Musical direction by Daniel Klintworth. Broadway at TPAC Series, Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through Sunday, October 2. For details and ticket information, go to Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (with one 20-minute intermission).

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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