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Review: 'Pretty Woman' and 'Head Over Heels' try oh-so-hard to revive beauty and the beat for Broadway

Review: 'Pretty Woman' and 'Head Over Heels' try oh-so-hard to revive beauty and the beat for Broadway
Rachel York as Queen Gynecia and Jeremy Kushnier as King Basilius are surrounded by the company of "Head Over Heels," which marries the Go-Go's hits with the 16th century prose poem "Arcadia." (Joan Marcus)

Two new Broadway musicals with commercial hooks have opened this summer, one progressive in its approach to gender and sexuality, the other regressive about such matters. But the same problem bedevils both shows: The creators haven’t conquered their source material.

“Head Over Heels,” which is the more inventive of the two, marries, of all things, Philip Sidney’s 16th century prose poem “Arcadia” with old hit songs from the Go-Go’s. “Pretty Woman: The Musical” adapts to the stage (with a new score by the 1980s rock titan Bryan Adams and longtime collaborator Jim Vallance) the 1990 Garry Marshall film that turned Julia Roberts into a big-screen deity.

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It’s an odd feeling as a critic to wish you could have enjoyed the musical with outdated social attitudes less and the more forward-thinking musical more. But politics doesn’t determine our experience in the theater, and for all its ostentatious faults, “Pretty Woman” is helped by the charisma of its leads, Samantha Barks and Andy Karl.

The main problem of “Head Over Heels” is easily diagnosed: The music of the Go-Go’s, though appropriately festive, isn’t a natural fit for a story that traffics in faux Elizabethan iambic pentameter. Hits such as “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation” are smoothly enough integrated into this dizzying pastoral romance, but a good deal of pop dross from the band’s back catalog is shoehorned into Jeff Whitty’s book, which has been adapted for this Broadway production by James Magruder.

The musical’s world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 obviously revealed that more than fine-tuning was needed. But the renovation job hasn’t fixed what may be a structural flaw in the fundamental design.

The opening number, “We Got the Beat,” sets a sassy, effervescent tone that Michael Mayer’s frolicsome staging tries to exploit from start to finish. His production is given a kinetic kick by Spencer Liff’s choreography. (The chorus dancers, looking like a Madonna troupe that wandered into a Renaissance fair, practically steal the show.) But there’s an inevitable whiplash in the movement from the 1580s of Sidney to the 1980s of the Go-Go’s, and it’s not clear whom this curious hybrid is aiming to please. (If a Venn diagram exists mapping out the overlap of fans of these disparate artists, the producers have no doubt locked the evidence in a basement safe.)

The elaborate plotting adds another layer of complication. Although a huge influence on Shakespeare’s nature-gamboling, gender-swapping romantic comedies, “Arcadia” isn’t a play, and “Head Over Heels” comes across as a grab bag of theatrical games. The tale is no more tangled than Shakespeare’s notoriously skeinish “Cymbeline,” but that’s a standard requiring a flow chart.

Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier), King of Arcadia, tries to outrun a litany of unfavorable predictions concerning the faithfulness of his wife, Gynecia (Rachel York), the romantic destinies of his daughters, Pamela (Bonnie Milligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), and the future of his kingdom by packing up his family to the forest. But the daughters’ determined suitors, the lovesick shepherd Musidorus (a game Andrew Durand) and the self-possessed Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), aren’t easily thwarted. And there’s little point in doubting the oracle Pythio (played somewhat stiffly by Peppermint), whose ambiguous prophecies are bound to come true one way or another.

Much of the ambiguity turns out to have a sexual dimension. This reaches a farcical level after Musidorus disguises himself as a curvaceous Amazon and incenses the camp with wild desire. Making matters more furtively flirtatious, proud Pamela comes to understand the nature of her special, same-sex bond with Mopsa, a development that has a softening effect on her brazenly self-involved nature.

“Head Over Heels” proliferates more than it builds. Rather than involve us emotionally in the fate of the characters, the show seems content to have us cheer-lead the triumph of LGBTQ values, which a great many of us in the audience already applaud. (The performers, mirroring the comic self-consciousness of the writing, maintain an ironic distance from characters that have all the psychological grit of cartoons.)

The first half of “Head Over Heels” is ponderously set up, but the second act is slightly more adept at stirring the affections. This jukebox experiment doesn’t succeed, but by the time “Mad About You” is reprised at the end, some genuine new wave Elizabethan feeling sneaks through.

Andy Karl and Samantha Barks in "Pretty Woman: The Musical," the latest Broadway adaptation to come from film.
Andy Karl and Samantha Barks in "Pretty Woman: The Musical," the latest Broadway adaptation to come from film. (Matthew Murphy)

“Pretty Woman” is not a property that needed to be trotted out in the #MeToo era. But the box office appeal of this rom-com is apparently never out of season, and the show has been raking it in, no doubt on the familiarity of its risqué Cinderella story line.

The story of a Hollywood Boulevard sex worker who awakens the heart of a wealthy financier who gobbles up companies only to bleed them dry mixes fantasies about money and love in a fairy tale that is ultimately more consumerist than erotic. (The film, which capers down Rodeo Drive with religious zeal, captures the late 1980s “greed is good” zeitgeist.)

No, the Broadway musical doesn’t have the film’s secret weapon: Roberts’ toothy smile, balancing sly swagger with tender vulnerability. That absence will prove fatal to many hardcore fans of the movie. But Barks, who played Éponine in the film version of the musical “Les Misérables,” is a vibrant musical theater performer. She can’t usurp Roberts — no one could — but when she sings, she owns the stage, and she allows us to buy into Vivian’s (admittedly unadvisable) wish of being the rare hooker rescued by a prince.

Barks is well matched by Karl’s Edward, the role played in the movie by Richard Gere. Karl is perhaps the most seductive musical theater leading man working today, so it’s not impossible to overlook the character’s sins of narcissism, materialism and chauvinism. The chemistry between Barks and Karl may not be intensely sexual, but it is romantic, and this flawed show depends on the compatibility of their radiant talents to cover up the myriad shortcomings in a musical serving old wine in a new bottle.

The clunky book by Marshall and screenwriter J.F. Lawton is chockablock with groaners. The score, though it contains some arresting melodies, is hampered by hackneyed lyrics and music that can sound like a rock star’s idea of Broadway songwriting. Yet when Barks and Karl sing, they manage to temporarily steady the careering aircraft.

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Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (“Kinky Boots”), “Pretty Woman” has even less realism onstage than it had on-screen. There’s an abstract quality to the production that works best when the dancing is whipped up and the whole story is treated as a theatrical soufflé. (The more the door opens to dramatic dialogue, the more trouble the show gets into.)

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The supporting cast members occasionally buckle under the weight of what’s required of them. As Kit, Vivian’s streetwalking mentor, Orfeh (Karl’s wife in real life) thunders through her bland numbers and musters as much zing as she can out of her sodden punchlines. Eric Anderson has more success as Mr. Thompson, the fussy manager at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where much of the musical is set, than he does as Happy Man, an all-seeing street figure who seems to have wandered in from an aborted Lin-Manuel Miranda musical.

The simplicity of the “Pretty Woman” story helps to focus the audience’s attention, as does the spicy retreading of the Cinderella myth. For all its queasy-making gender dynamics, the show is built on an old romantic myth, in which the woman receiving the makeover by her social superior winds up humanizing the arrogant Svengali transforming her.

The current Lincoln Center Theater revival of “My Fair Lady” does this with much more artistic finesse. “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” a superficial Pygmalion salvaged as much as possible by its stars, is content to take this story straight to the bank.

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