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The very enjoyable Broadway musical adaptation of Garry Marshall’s 1990 Cinderella story, Pretty Woman, is more about finding one’s place in the world, both geographically and psychologically, than merely the tale of a hooker with a heart of gold finding her Prince Charming. And speaking of place, Samantha Barks, who plays Vivian, the role that made Julia Roberts a star in the movie, has found where she belongs, center stage on Broadway, delivering an inspiring, Tony-worthy performance. The story is fairly straightforward: Vivian Ward (Barks), a broke prostitute, meets a wealthy financier, Edward Lewis (Andy Karl taking on the Richard Gere part), who treats her to the high life in order to pull off a major deal. As their public deception proceeds, both wonder whether something more is going on as they each search for somewhere to call home. (She lives in a walk-up rat trap, while he resides in a posh hotel.) “Tell me, what’s your dream? / I know you’ve got one / It’s like a map to your life / You’ll be lost until you’ve caught one,” sings a shabbily dressed Happy Man (Eric Anderson) on the seedier side of Hollywood Blvd., where he offers free maps to help people find their way.
“Don’t you want to get out of here?” Vivian asks her friend, fellow prostitute Kit De Luca (Orfeh, Karl’s real-life wife), who replies, “Get out of where? Where do you want to go?” A moment later Vivian sings, “I look around and what I see / Is I don’t belong here, this isn’t me. . . . I know where I’d choose to go / If I could disappear / Anywhere but here / Anywhere but here.” When Vivian meets Edward, he has taken a few wrong turns and does not know how to get back to his hotel. She asks him to pay ten dollars for her help and he says, “You can’t charge me for directions.” She smartly replies, “I can do anything I want to, baby. I ain’t lost.” But of course, they both are lost. “I can take you anywhere / ’Cause anything’s possible,” the Happy Man says as he dramatically changes into a regal concierge outfit and the set transforms into the exclusive Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Edward lives on the top floor, even though he’s afraid of heights. Edward is working with his shifty lawyer, Phillip Stuckey (Jason Danieley), attempting a hostile takeover of a ship-building company owned by James Morse (Kingsley Leggs); it’s no accident that Edward has no real care for the business itself, which specializes in making vessels that take people to other places primarily for pleasure. As Vivian blossoms à la Eliza Doolittle, she and Edward grow very close, but they have a deal with an end date; at the start they were both in it for the money, but soon they’re thinking about the future in a different way.
One of my regular theater companions refused to join me, concerned that the show would be offensive, that it would celebrate outdated, antifeminist views about women as decorative possessions, to the point that a woman realizes survival means selling herself — and her love — like a product. But the book, by Garry Marshall and the film’s screenwriter, J. F. Lawton, and the music and lyrics, by Bryan Adams (yes, the Canadian pop star) and Jim Vallance, often put Vivian in charge, or at least have her and Edward on equal footing, although it occasionally teeters on the edge. “Don’t want this feelin’ to go away / When I think about where I was yesterday / It’s so amazing — I can’t believe / That a billionaire would care about a girl like me / I’ve got money to spend / I’ve got champagne on ice / There’s a smile on my face / I’m getting’ treated real nice,” she sings like a classic golddigger before reevaluating what she wants out of life. Barks (Les Misérables, Chicago) and three-time Tony nominee Karl (Groundhog Day, Rocky) have an instant chemistry together, with solid support from Tony nominee Orfeh (Legally Blonde, Footloose) and Anderson (Waitress, Kinky Boots), who nearly steals the show as both the Happy Man and Mr. Thompson. (Keep a watch out for Tommy Bracco, who purloins some moments of his own as Giulio, the hotel bellman.) David Rockwell’s set design rockets between wealth and poverty, while Gregg Barnes’s costumes, particularly for Barks, are fab. Gleefully directed and choreographed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde), Pretty Woman turns out to be a rather pleasant surprise — led by a breakout performance by Barks.