On Sept. 15, I attended a performance of the national tour of the Broadway musical “Pretty Woman” at the Fox Theatre in Midtown Atlanta. As I am a playwright, and theater enthusiast myself, I was beaming with excitement to view this production. Set in 1980s California, the show follows a young sex worker Vivian Ward, played by Olivia Valli, through her experiences after being hired by corporate businessman Edward Lewis, played by Broadway icon Adam Pascal. Through its comical moments, the musical focuses on unexpected romance, self-discovery and the importance of passion.
As I sat in the theater for two hours of my night, I realized the show couldn’t captivate, much less hold my attention. I felt distant from the story that was being presented to me on stage. The reason? I lacked an emotional connection to the characters, most specifically to Vivian. The lead character felt like she was written and conveyed without the intention of making me believe she was a real, whole human being who had lived a full life before appearing on stage.
As I was watching the show, I felt like I was watching a script be performed rather than being enveloped in the world where “Pretty Woman” takes place. The absence of emotional depth in the script likely influenced the actor’s portrayal of Vivian. An example of this is during the scene when Vivian lets her emotional walls down and explains what led to her to becoming a sex worker. She talks about her childhood and paving her way to survive in a new city.
The moment was supposed to be emotionally pivotal and an opportunity for the audience to learn about who Vivian. However, the script and the actor delivered it to us emotionally disconnected. As if this wasn’t Vivian’s life that she had lived and a past that continues to affect her in her present. Instead of it being her own experience, it came across like Vivian was told these experiences were hers.
Vivian only existed for me on a surface level. She didn’t exist beyond the present moment in her life or beyond the stage. I couldn’t imagine Vivian as a human being because she was neither written nor portrayed as one, but more like a “thing” that existed solely for the purpose of a story. Vivian didn’t own the story, the story owned her.
Another issue I had regarding character development was the confusing inconsistencies of behavior. With Vivian, in particular, I felt like in an effort to mask the underdeveloped nature of the character, the writers gave us unfocused elements of expression from Vivian, almost as an unsuccessful attempt to show a three-dimensional human.
An example of this was at the beginning of the play, Vivian is intelligently aware of how her presence impacts her success as a sex worker and is outwardly self-confident. She’s intentional about carrying herself a certain way and calls her own shots. However, as the show goes on Vivian becomes unaware of her obnoxious behavior in inappropriate settings that very well could have resulted in her losing her client. Not only that but she constantly requires outside validation and reassurance from people she’s just met. I felt like these many instances of capriciousness were placed arbitrarily in the story as an attempt to show that Vivian is a layered person, but instead, it comes across as inconsistent with who she’s introduced as.
A character that I did enjoy was Gulio, the hotel bellboy played by Trent Soyster. I loved this character because he added lightheartedness and comical relief to any situation. Guilo felt like an animated character with his exaggerated facial expressions, voice tone, and body language. Although he was a small supporting character, he helped me feel excited to think beyond the stage. I wondered what other unconventional experiences he encounters during his work shift and who he spills the tea to when he’s off the clock. He added a sense of fun and quirkiness that I couldn’t successfully find anywhere else in the show.
An aspect of the show that left me feeling muddled was the conflict that emerged as a result of Edward’s work. Throughout the show, the audience is told about what Edward does for a living and we are given glimpses of it but we’re mainly focused on Vivian’s journey and the pair’s developing love story.
When his work is reintroduced with a conflict, I found myself scrambling to remember why his work was important and where we left off discussing that part of the story — especially since the conflict is so dire it puts Vivian’s safety in jeopardy. I had trouble feeling concerned for her well-being because I was more worried about remembering why this conflict was even there.
Additionally, the fight scene that occurred as a result of the conflict left me feeling confused by the “PG”-rated depiction of self-defense, compared to the much more explicit sexually suggestive scenes. Also, the self-defense scene was so poorly blocked, I couldn’t feel victorious towards the win Vivian had. Instead, I cringed at the odd choreography.
The central plot of “Pretty Woman” is supposed to revolve around the unexpected romance between Vivian and Edward. And as a lover of slow-burn romance myself, I was disappointed by my lack of emotional investment in their love story. The reason for this was partly due to being unable to connect to the characters as a whole and because the romance didn’t feel … romantic.
I felt indifferent to the success of their love story and only cared if it worked out for the sake of the plot. I couldn’t feel the chemistry between Edward and Vivian, even after Edward’s grand gesture of love. I couldn’t visualize them as a couple to root for their happily ever after.
I was also taken off guard by the transition into Vivian’s desire to have a fairytale-like romance. Seeing Vivian’s immense passion for a fairytale love to the point there was an entire song dedicated to it confused me as to why there wasn’t a solidifying scene earlier in the show for her to truly express that want for such a specific type of love story.
Overall, “Pretty Woman: The Musical” has plenty of room for improvement. There are few aspects of the show I enjoyed and many I didn’t. I wish “Pretty Woman” had a more organized flow and better writing. To make “Pretty Woman” worth watching for me, I want to see intentionality about fully enveloping the audience into the story.
I’d like to see the writers unhesitatingly embrace world-building and refuse to settle for surface-level. I would appreciate the characters being given the time to be fully developed with depth and complexity that both the audience and the characters understand as true.
Last but not least, I want “Pretty Woman” to give me a romance that I’ll have no choice but to root for. Nevertheless, “Pretty Woman” still has the potential to truly be a great show and I give my applause to each and every one of the talented people who made this production come to life.
VOX teens had the opportunity to see “Pretty Woman: The Musical” at the Fox Theatre, thanks to the generosity of VOX ATL’s community partner Most Valuable Kids Atlanta.