Review: The Devil Wears Prada Is a Pleasant but Uninspired Knockoff of the Film
The new musical, with score by Elton John and Shaina Taub, shakes down at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre.
After two years of pandemic delay, The Devil Wears Prada, the Musical finally has opened its highly anticipated pre-Broadway tryout at the Nederlander Theatre. Those looking for composer Elton John in the opening night audience were disappointed, though he'd been in Chicago two nights earlier for one of his numerous farewell concerts.
His music here is thoroughly pleasant and tuneful mainstream pop-rock, very Elton John-ish in the best sense as orchestrated by Giles Martin, with a few surprises such as a patter song for fearsome editor Miranda Priestly (Beth Leavel), some jazz licks in the show's only romantic number, and a touch of soul in the big ballad, "What Do I Want for Me?," sung by Taylor Iman Jones in the lead role of Andy Sachs. John and lyricist Shaina Taub serve each other well. Her words are tight and smart, and she can turn a crisp phrase, as when Runway Magazine art director Nigel Owens (Javier Muñoz) tells Andy that his hard-won success "fits like a Lagerfeld glove."
However, John and Taub are not given a chance to write any extended musical sequences or story-advancing music-and-dance numbers as John did so very successfully in Billy Elliot. The one that comes closest is the up-tempo production number "Dress Your Way Up" for Nigel and chorus in Act 1 (repeated in the curtain call). Few of the 18 numbers run over five minutes.
The show very much is an old-fashioned book-and-number musical, which even has a so-called "Number in One" to cover a big scene change at the end of Act 1. Indeed, The Devil Wears Prada, the Musical lacks the imagination to innovate, or to veer away from the set storyline of the 2006 film or Lauren Weisberger's 2003 source novel. This may delight legions of movie fans who may flock to the show (along with fashionistas) — the producers almost certainly are counting on this — but it makes for a mundane, uninspired show in the emotional sense, despite plenty of visual dazzle.
It's difficult to say who is at fault here. How much influence did first-time musical director Anna D. Shapiro have? What about book writer Kate Wetherhead, also taking her first crack at a musical? Did she know the rules? Did the producers or Weisberger require her to follow the movie nearly scene for scene? From the result onstage, it seems that Wetherhead's biggest chore was to pare down the story to make room for songs. Minor characters and incidents are gone, with a laser focus on Miranda and Andy that's so narrow it excludes real romance or a hint of a subplot. Andy and her boyfriend, Nate Angstrom (Michael Tacconi), have neither a love song nor a necessary break-up scene after Andy promises to meet him at an important event, and then doesn't (although the show never clearly says she doesn't).
Perhaps more telling, almost all the story points are made in dialogue scenes rather than in song or dance. In fact, no storytelling tasks are given to dance at all. James Alsop's fairly simple (although pleasant) choreography chiefly is musical staging or a cover for scene changes. Some scenes simply scream for dance that isn't there, such as the giant red staircase that's introduced at the end of Act 1 and is barely utilized; it seems like an expensive waste (as does a turntable, used twice in Act 2 for a total of no more than 90 seconds).
It certainly is not the fault of a talented, engaging, and hard-working company. Beth Leavel is deadly cool as Miranda Priestly, achieving an arch (yet empathetic) style with physical movement and face that capably distinguishes her from Meryl Streep's screen portrayal. Taylor Iman Jones has charm and appeal as Andy Sachs, and plenty of voice when she finally is allowed to cut loose. Muñoz gives the buttoned-up, discreet Nigel Owens plenty of buried passion and heart. Megan Masako Haley has a ball with the platform-heeled, ditzy Emily Charlton, and the audience has a ball with her. Tacconi as Nate Angstrom and Christian Thompson as the character Christian Thompson (how's that for coincidence?) capably do what they can with their underwritten roles (especially Nate).
Scenic and media designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis frame their New York City settings with two steel towers representing elevated tracks, buildings under construction, viaducts, and so on, which spectacularly morph into the Eiffel Tower when the Act 2 action shifts to Paris. Combined with projections and Paule Constable's lighting, it's a lovely trick, as is the segue back to NYC when the cherry trees are in bloom. Costumes by Arianne Phillips, and hair and wig designs by Campbell Young & Associates run the gamut from high-glam to dive bar and give audiences plenty to look at, culminating in "Who's She?," in which Andy herself becomes the center of fashion attention. Her increasingly spectacular costume is re-fashioned before our eyes as she sings, and channels Diana Ross.
The show has some other odd structural quirks in addition to the seemingly wasted staircase and turntable, and the unfulfilled Andy-Nate relationship. The intermission is in the wrong place — there is nothing at stake emotionally for Andy at that moment — and her "I Wish" song, "What Do I Want for Me?," is at the very end of the show rather than at the beginning. Then, the show is set in the present but indicates that Yves St. Laurent is still alive, although he died in 2008. Ya can't have it both ways.
The Devil Wears Prada is tuneful, visually appealing, strongly performed and played, making a pleasant time at the theater for most. But it also is too familiar to have any surprise and lacks real emotional power. Frankly, there does not seem to be any compelling reason for The Devil Wears Prada to be a musical, other than reasons of commerce.