CHICAGO — As the movie "Pretty Woman" made a star of a young Julia Roberts, so "Pretty Woman The Musical," likely will do the same for the sensational 27-year-old Manx actress Samantha Barks. She's gritty enough to be credible as Vivian, a trailer-park girl from Georgia now turning tricks on Hollywood Boulevard; witty enough to deliver lines like "it was a business doing pleasure with you" and actually snag a big laugh; and, most importantly, vulnerable and lovable enough to be far more Eliza Doolittle than "Rock of Ages."
And that's crucial to maestro Jerry Mitchell's typically shrewd and savvy retooling of a blockbuster--but now problematic--Hollywood movie as a PG romantic comedy of feminist aspiration. In this authorized incarnation, the smug Richard Gere character of Edward Lewis, now played by Steve Kazee, is way, way more of an dysfunctional mess than Vivian, a superhero prostitute who knows sports cars, facilitates moral business deals, intuits opera and, most importantly, rehabs emotionally bereft corporate raiders in six days flat. Had Carl Icahn met Vivian, we'd all still be flying on TWA.
Add in a rocking voice that can nail any power ballad thrown her way by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance (who've cooked up a lot of straight-up hook-y songs, mostly with the apt flavor of the 1990s) and enough energy to fire up the Oriental Theatre, where the modestly scaled "Pretty Woman" opened its pre-Broadway tryout on Wednesday night, and you have a breakout performance.
Kazee, an actor of great integrity, has the tough job of keeping up with all of Barks' energy, coupled with the challenges of playing an emasculated character who, in a nod to the tenor of times, is written (by the savvy screenwriter J.F. Lawton and the late writer-director Gary Marshall) as far too depressed to ever rescue anybody. That all has gone too far for this kind of show. Although he has nary a moment of inauthenticity, Kazee needs to perk up, sex it up, charm it up, take off his shirt, emote less and smile more; he's a corporate raider with issues, not a melancholy adjunct history teacher, for goodness sake. And on Wednesday night in Chicago, when "Pretty Woman" opened its pre-Broadway tryout on a witty David Rockwell La La Land backdrop, you could feel how much the core demographic of fun-seeking women out with women, clearly fans who fondly recall the film, wanted to love him in all the shady ways. They won't leave happy otherwise.
In its best moments--and there is a lot of good stuff here, not the least of which is a fresh, genie-like narrator very amusingly played by Eric Anderson --"Pretty Woman" evokes the true thrill of coming from nothing and suddenly landing in, well, Beverly Hills. Adams and Vallance have written several populist songs on that "My Fair Lady" theme: "Anywhere But Here," "Look at Me Now," "This is My Life." Barks can really pull off that class differential without patronizing stereotype (and so can the great Orfeh, who plays a character not dissimilar from her memorably boffo turn in "Legally Blonde" and every bit as fun). Barks really earns her paycheck on "I Can't Go Back," another hot number on a list of 18 pretty creditable originals, quite varied in style and nary a one from the massive Adams backlist.
The more director and choreographer Mitchell can push the show in that resonant class-driven direction and sharpen those distinctions, the better, for it makes us pull for the hard-luck story and want to fight our persistent inequality. At this juncture, times abide when the show feels bland and populated by insufficiently distinct personas. This needs fixing.
All the big numbers also require work. The Cinderella finale feels rushed, half-baked and does not satisfy; the famous opera scene is on its way ("You and I" is the best song), but it's still spatially problematic in that it seems like Vivien in her low-rise box could reach out and ruffle the hair of the singers; and a hip-hop interlude feels forced and insufficiently integrated. Vivian's crucial declaration of love is weird, too.
The Act One opener and closer aren't there yet either (the opening number, "Welcome to Hollywood," has a great melody but too cliched a lyrical sentiment); and there is nowhere near enough tension in the weak middle-section of Act Two, the act that needs the most work. And some of the movie-style cuts back from the hotel to Hollywood Blvd. are mighty abrupt. But then all that is why they try out these shows in Chicago, and the stellar ensemble performances have come together laudably fast. I actually think the show needs to add some stuff: more choreography, something to make the audience feel more special.
Still, you really have to admire how well "Pretty Woman" has walked the line between respecting the affection people hold for the source movie, and avoiding its threatening potholes. The show does not break any major new ground, of course, and it is hard to imagine it ever being a critical favorite of the cognoscenti. Nor was the movie.
But this never is a crude nor an offensive show, the music is genuinely accessible to audiences who listen to Adult Contemporary FM, and, with Barks in truly ebullient charge, "Pretty Woman" has the potential to give a lot of hard-working people a good, fun night out, honoring their memories, the struggles of their present, and the impulse we all have to borrow someone else's credit card and hit Rodeo Drive, before it hits us in our pretty face.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: "Pretty Woman: The Musical" (3 stars)
When: Through Apr. 15
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $33-125 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com