Written by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton, with songs by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance
At: Oriental Theatre 24 W. Randolph St.; BroadwayInChicago.com . Tickets: $33-$125. Runs through: April 15
Within the first 10 minutes of the new musical Pretty Woman, a prostitute is found beaten to death in a dumpster. Everybody shrugs and moves on. This pretty much sets the tone for the evening.
Based on the 1990 movie of the same name, Pretty Woman the Musical is a misogynistic piece of male-fantasy propaganda.
Pretty Woman is as rooted in the male gaze as a Playboy pictorial. There's no nudity, but the message is the same: If you look like you just stepped out of a centerfold and act like a quirky manic dream girl who bathes in innocence and unicorn sparkles, you will live happily ever after.
Here's the reality: Sex work is a valid career choice for many, not ( as it is for Pretty Woman's Vivian Ward ) a source of constant shame and disappointment. Research the stats, and you'll see sex work is also among the most dangerous professions in the world. The average prostitute in the U.S. starts working at 14. She is 400 times more likely to be murdered on the job than women in other professions. She will be raped eight to 10 times a year. She works for a pimp who controls her money.
Pretty Woman's all-male creative team ( director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell, bookwriter J. F. Lawton, music and lyrics by Jim Vallance and Bryan Adams ) offers two sides of prostitution: One is the dead woman in the dumpster. The other is a world of penthouse suites, bubbly bathtubs and sugar-coated strawberries.
Burn. It. All. Down. ( Figuratively, of course, as I am not advocating arson. )
Pretty Woman sticks largely to the movie's nearly 30-year-old script. Vivian ( Samantha Barks ) is a hooker with a heart of gold, a small-town gal who knows in her heart of hearts that she is better than your average Hollywood Boulevard streetwalker.
She's adorably charming, a wide-eyed, adult version of Shirley Temple if Shirley temple grew up to trade in her tap shoes for blowjobs. We're to believe Vivian is empowered because ( as is oft repeated lest you miss the empowerment ) she "says who, when and how much." Despite the insistent redundancy, these are empty words. If Viv doesn't say "yes," "soon" and "at least $300," she will be evicted from her apartment.
The rent crisis is averted when Vivian picks up Edward ( Steve Kazee ), who has more money than God, but is also a workaholic who doesn't realize how empty his lonely life is. That is until, of course, Vivian and her heart of gold melt his heart of stone by showing him that money can't buy happiness. The plot is as predictable as it is preposterous.
When Edward and Vivian have sex, it's the kind of sex that Erica Jong famously described as the "zipless fuck." There's no sweat or clumsiness or weirdly placed hair or smeared makeup or embarrassing noises. To quote Jong: "Zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff." It's like watching a cheesy soft-focus ballet.
As for Adams and Vallance's score and lyrics: The former is forgettable and derivative of the three-chord pop that reigned in the early 1990s. The latter insists that if you wear the right clothes, you will transform into your best, most empowered self. Granted there's a kernel of truth thereclothes can have transformative powers. But in Pretty Woman, empowerment is tied directly to access to a credit card.
There is plenty of talent on stage in Pretty Woman. That only puts the wasted opportunities the show presents into stark relief. If they'd had even one woman on the lead creative team, maybe Pretty Woman wouldn't be as heinously sexist, tone deaf and offensive as it is. Then again, maybe not.