By William Wolf

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When Samantha Barks as Vivian Ward sings the line “I sold my body but I never sold my soul” in the Broadway musical “Pretty Woman,” her emotional affirmation comes across as a salute to sex workers and their right to be considered with dignity. True, the show is just as much of a fairy tale as the film on which it is based, but it is a fun-filled fairy tale thanks largely to the charismatic lead performances by Barks and Andy Karl as Edward Lewis, the rich corporate raider who becomes smitten by Vivian and in addition to helping her to change her life also changes his own along the way.

The first thing required for going to see this musical is to forget trying to make comparisons with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, the memorable stars of the film. That was screen, this is stage, and the musical deserves to stand on its own in accordance with the very different requirements of song, dance and theatrical pizzazz. Barks and Karl do well on all counts and there is welcome chemistry between them.

The book by the late Garry Marshall and by J.F. Lawton follows the film’s storyline. As for the music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, the result is the sort of pop-rock style that lacks distinction but allows for Barks and others (notably Orfeh as her co-hooker pal Kit De Luca) to show off their pipes.

The story set-up involves Karl as Lewis in California to close a huge business deal acquiring a struggling shipping company and being intrigued by a brassy, crassly dressed but very pretty and sexy street hooker (Vivian). What starts out as a one-night romp in his luxurious suite at the Beverly Wilshire turns into a week of her company, during which they fall for each other and she gets a make-over. He mellows as a businessman, and she learns to assert her independence and self-respect.

Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, the show has plenty of flash, from the oppressively garish Hollywood Boulevard setting to the sophisticated Beverly Wilshire (scenic design by David Rockwell). The costume design by Gregg Barnes likewise ranges from gaudy to high fashion. The songs offer opportunities to Barks with such numbers as “Anywhere But Here,” “I Could Get Used to This” and “I Can’t Go Back,” and to Karl with “Something About Her” and “Freedom.” There is an exhilarating turn by soprano Allison Blackwell singing as Violetta in “La Traviata” when Edward escorts Vivian to the opera.

Among supporting performers, Eric Anderson exhibits his range playing both Happy Man, who cavorts as a kind of street MC singing about hopes and dreams for all, and also portrays the suave, sympathetic manager of the Beverly Wilshire. Tommy Bracco repeatedly enlivens the show as Giulio, the dancing bellhop who slips into scene after scene.

The appealing lead performances by Barks and Karl induce one to take the formulaic story more seriously than it deserves to be regarded. Overall the musical “Pretty Women” provides much entertainment as a Broadway entry more attuned to potential popularity than to art. At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 23, 2018.


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