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Review: Pretty Woman at Liverpool Empire ***1/2

It seems to be the season for stage versions of 90s films.

Last week the lads of Brit hit The Fully Monty strutted their stuff on the Empire stage, and next month Matthew Bourne’s ballet version of Tim Burton’s 1990 fantasy heart-tugger Edward Scissorhands returns to Lime Street for the first time in a decade.

Sandwiched between the two is this amiable and brightly staged musical version of rom com favourite Pretty Woman, on its inaugural UK tour.

Back in 1990, Garry Marshall’s Pygmalion-meets-Cinderella tale was a smash hit with cinema audiences, raking in more than $460m at the global box office and hurtling Julia Roberts into the superstar stratosphere.

All that despite it possessing, let’s call it, a somewhat problematic premise. Certainly for those who think (whether heroine Vivian protests that she decides when, where and with who or not) that ‘sex work’ is exploitative, particularly of women from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that glamorising and romanticising it into a rescue fairytale is in questionable taste.

Setting aside those misgivings, it remains hugely popular - as the practically sold-out run at the Empire underlines, with the opening night audience clearly loving both the stage show’s entertaining ‘rom’ and ‘com’ aspects.

The former centres on the burgeoning relationship between Hollywood hooker-with-a-heart Vivian (understudy Elly Jay replacing Amber Davies as the latter is competing in Dancing on Ice on TV) and amoral billionaire corporate asset stripper Edward (Oliver Savile) who essentially rents her for a week to act as his companion-with-benefits while he seals his latest dastardly deal.

Jay seizes her moment in the spotlight with a warm-hearted and entertainingly sparky performance as the gauche but loveable Vivian, who has her rough edges rubbed smooth during a week in the penthouse at the swanky Beverly Wilshire.

Above: Ore Oduba as Happy Man in Pretty Woman the Musical. Top: Edward and Vivian. Photos by Marc Brenner.

Edward also goes on a journey of course, here from stony-hearted business destroyer to poetry-spouting free spirit and empathetic philanthropist, although the character remains somewhat underwritten which doesn’t give the evidently talented Savile as much to get his teeth into as it might.

Together the two leads create an appealing and watchable partnership.

The comedy aspect meanwhile is augmented by the addition of screwball-style flights of fancy, mostly driven by Noah Harrison’s wide-eyed bellboy Giulio and by Ore Oduba who doubles as Hollywood Boulevard’s ‘Happy Man’ and as the hotel’s dapper manager Bernard Thompson, as well as popping up in knowing break-the-fourth-wall moments as other random characters.

It's a long way from the BBC Breakfast Time sofa for the former sports presenter-turned-Strictly champion, but it’s evident from this and other stage roles that Oduba has found his true calling in musical theatre.

Marshall and JF Lawton’s script sticks faithfully to the film’s core dialogue, and amid the tangential flights of fancy come all the scenes that Pretty Woman fans will be anticipating, right down to the moment (apparently improvised on the big screen by Richard Gere) where Edward snaps the jewellery case on to an unsuspecting Vivian’s hand before they head for the opera – where Lila Falce-Bass is impressive as La Trav’s Violetta.

Above: Noah Harrison as Giulio. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Perhaps the most famous and quoted part of the story remains Vivian’s venture down Rodeo Drive, where snobby shop assistants sneer at her skimpy gear and refuse to serve her, then get their comeuppance later.

Here it whirls by at a colourful canter of wish-fulfilment shopping, the crushing awfulness of the refusal scene remaining relatively unexplored.

David Rockwell’s striking set design – the filigree entrance to the Beverly Wilshire is a thing of beauty - is artfully lit in saturated hues by Kenneth Posner and Phillip S Rosenberg.

There are some nearly-choreographed ensemble numbers, and the cast are in fine voice, particularly Natalie Paris as Vivian’s streetwise friend Kit, although Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s original music is serviceable but unremarkable – Orbison’s Pretty Woman, teased in an odd riff then finally delivered at the encore, remains the only truly hummable tune.

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