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29th February 2024

Pretty Woman the Musical review: An unimaginative adaption that lacked identity

Pretty Woman the Musical was a disappointing adaption of a problematic rom-com that showed glimpses of how much better it could have been if a bolder and more imaginative approach had been taken
Pretty Woman the Musical review: An unimaginative adaption that lacked identity
Photo: Marc Brenner @ Palace Theatre PR

Pretty Woman the Musical is a disappointing adaptation of the 90s rom-com that was let down by the failure of the creative team to diverge from its source material.

Pretty Woman the Musical is the theatricalised adaptation of the 1990 classic rom-com classic film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. The show follows the story of Vivian, a sex worker in LA, who is hired for a week by the wealthy Edward to accompany him on a series of business engagements. 

The fundamental issue with Pretty Woman the Musical was its unwillingness to venture far from its source material. The best musical adaptations of films (think Hairspray, Heathers, Waitress, etc) recognise that musicals and films are fundamentally different mediums, and allow for material to be developed and modified to create a fresh and exciting version of the story that can stand by itself. However, Pretty Woman fails to do this and, bar a few minor adjustments and some songs, the book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, screenwriters on the original film, presents an almost word-for-word copy of the film script. Consequently, the musical fails to establish its own identity and feels like a bland repeat of the film. 

However, we do see glimpses of the show’s potential if they dared to step away from the original film. A new scene created where the hotel manager, Mr. Thompson, teaches Vivian how to dance in the musical number ‘On a Night Like Tonight,’ was both hilarious and heartwarming. It was thoroughly enjoyable to watch, making it the highlight of the show. Furthermore, Jerry Mitchell, the director, added some hilarious physical comedy for Giulio, the bellboy. This presented a breath of fresh comedy to the production that was unfortunately lacking in the rest of the show.

One minor adjustment to the content was Edward’s character becoming slightly less unsavoury. His controlling and snobbish nature is toned down and they reduced their age gap by casting Oliver Savile, a younger actor, to play the role. However, as this change was not supported by any character development or exploration, it ended up feeling like Edward was just play-acting as an arrogant businessman, which undermines the narrative of the story. 

This choice to water down Edward’s character feels like a weak and failed attempt to make the problematic relationship between Vivian and Edward more palatable for modern sensibility. Their relationship is intrinsically imbalanced: Edward holds all the power and authority as she is financially dependent on him to not be homeless. The narrative applauds him as a hero for taking a chance on Vivian who’s ‘not-like-other-sex-workers’.

Furthermore, the idealisation of the wealthy remains unchanged. Vivian is shown as deserving of respect only when she wears designer clothes, and Edward’s assertion of his financial power over a store manager is presented as empowering, rather than a mean-spirited abuse of power. The musical, continually afraid to diverge from the film, keeps perpetuating these problematic narratives without any scrutiny or critique. 

The music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance are fun, but most fail to move the plot forward. This resulted in many reflective songs that failed to make an impact due to bland and uninspiring lyricism. A lyrical ‘lowlight’ was the ballad sung by Edward about how he wanted to live his life differently. Unfortunately, no one in the creative process picked up on the deep irony of having an incredibly wealthy, white, straight, cis-gendered man, who makes his millions from making people redundant, earnestly croon about how much he needs “Freedom”. It came across as almost comical.

In regards to cast performance, Noah Harrison as Giulio was easily the standout of the show. He was an absolute scene-stealer with his moments of physical comedy and brought a lot of energy to the show. Paige Fenlon, who is covering the role of Vivian during the Manchester run, presented a charming and fun take on the character and had a gorgeous voice that shone during her solo numbers. Savile did an impressive job of portraying Edward’s emotional transformation, which was not made easy with the watered-down material, and had a beautiful voice. Ore Oduba brought a loveable charisma to the show as the Happy Man/Mr Thompson. 

The costumes, by Tom Rogers, were mostly replicas of the legendary costumes in the film, which served to further the feeling of a lack of creativity in the production. However, when there was a divergence, such as Vivian’s stunning white top and trousers at the end of Act Two, the costumes are fabulous, again generating the wish for the production to have diverged more from the film. 

The lighting design by Kenneth Posner and Philip S. Rosenberg was consistently good throughout the show. The standout moments were in “You and I,” which took place in the iconic opera scene, as it helped to show Edward’s inner monologue, and ‘I Can’t Go Back,’ as the lighting beautifully highlighted Vivian’s outfit. The scenic design, by David Rocknell, was more mixed. The backdrop of the set was a large, colour-changing screen that was successful in helping to convey the atmosphere and setting. However, the set pieces felt a little unadventurous, which was particularly disappointing as the luxurious and opulent settings that stun and amaze Vivian should make the audience feel the same way. 

Overall, Pretty Woman the Musical was a disappointing adaption of a problematic rom-com that showed glimpses of how much better it could have been if a bolder and more imaginative approach had been taken. 

Pretty Woman the Musical runs at the Palace Theatre until the 16th of March, before continuing its UK tour. 

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