Review of "The Devil Wears Prada": an adaptation to adapt

Review of “The Devil Wears Prada”: an adaptation to adapt

CHICAGO — A musical comedy movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too, and still fits in a sample size, “The Devil Wears Prada,” opened at the James M. Nederlander Theater here on Sunday. With music from rock god Elton John and lyrics from Off-Broadway darling Shaina Taub (“Suffs”), it seemed poised to set a trend or two.

Although the show takes place in a fashion magazine, its creative team doesn’t seem to have settled on a style. Is it a heartfelt story of a young woman’s upbringing—sentimental, professional, sartorial—or a Fashion Week party? An investigation into toxic workplace culture or an excuse to put an Eiffel Tower (technically, two Eiffel Towers) on stage? This is a show that has tried everything in its closet. Nothing fits.

Adapted from the 2006 film, itself adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef from her year at Condé Nast in 2003, it follows Andy Sachs (Taylor Iman Jones), a young journalism graduate. Andy has big dreams. The Big Apple quickly cancels them in “I Mean Business”, the show’s effective opener. After six months of rejection, she somehow lands a coveted job at Runway — a fictional Vogue replacement — as second assistant to its imperious editor, Miranda Priestly (Beth Leavel.)

Andy doesn’t care about fashion. She’s got the cable knit tights to prove it. But she needs a job to pay the rent. (Yes, the musical assumes an entry-level media gig guarantees financial security. How expensive.) So she does what she perceives to be the first of many Faustian deals — putting her dreams on hold. and hold on for a year.

“My voice can wait,” she told Miranda. I mean, Joan Didion got her start at Vogue. But on.

The problem is Andy isn’t very good at her job. Admittedly, it lacks the maniacal perfectionism and bonkers wardrobe of Emily Charlton, the venomous first assistant (Megan Masako Haley, wasted until the second act). For help, she turns to the magazine’s creative director, Nigel Owens (Javier Muñoz), who gives her the makeover she desperately needs, in “Dress Your Way Up,” a power ballad inspired by the collection. of Met costumes and the platitude of coffee mugs. that you should dress for the job you want.

But Andy remains ambivalent about his job. And is a hot pink romper and thigh high boots really an office wear idea for someone? (The costumes, which range from the flamboyant — the chorus — to the unconvincing and oddly crumpled — the main — are by Arianne Phillips.) The musical is also ambivalent. The film, with its more streamlined wardrobe and more substantial visual pleasures, seemed a begrudging admiration of the fashion industry, as a business, as an art. The show, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, a serious performer whom I wouldn’t associate with glitz or whimsy, can’t make up its mind.

The songs unfold nicely enough, with flashes of glamor and bits of wit, but they tend to feel last season. The choreography, by James Alsop, relies on Broadway vernacular, with ballroom lights. Of course, there is voguing. Although Kate Wetherhead’s book makes some updates – there’s a reference to collagen powder – it doesn’t take a point. And on a show with an avowed aversion to starches, the jokes are deeply cheesy.

“What should I do?” Andy moaned as Miranda approached.

“Find a better exfoliator, for starters,” says Nigel.

Sometimes I wondered what a writer who takes bigger, sharper comic swings — Bess Wohl, say, Jocelyn Bioh, Halley Feiffer — might have done with this material. Would a score recognizing the last 40 years of popular music have made a difference? This version takes Jones, a charismatic actress with a supple and flexible voice, and gives her little to do but stress and procrastinate. (She shinesby the way, no exfoliator needed.) And while magazines like Vogue eventually admitted a lack of diversity, the musical never acknowledges that anyone Miranda abuses, who is white, is a person of color.

“The Devil Wears Prada” wants to convey a vision of luxury and style – which explains the makeover scene, the gala scene, the Paris fashion week scene. Christine Jones and Brett Banakis, the set designers and the media, have a lot of fun with Paris. But Andy, a woman without a professional signature, seems to feel that fashion is somehow below her. Even when she comes to appreciate couture on a personal level (“Who’s She?”), she never recognizes it as substantial, rejecting the opportunity to write about it. It remains frivolous, not serious, girly stuff, which gives the musical, despite the presence of so many women in the creative team, a nuance of anti-feminism.

None of the female characters on the show support each other until the end. Andy’s two roommates (Christiana Cole and Tiffany Mann) are drawn so finely that I never made out their names. They still take the time to judge her. Apparently, it’s not great.

Which brings us, of course, to the Miranda of it all. In the film, Meryl Streep played Miranda with sleek silver hair and a voice like liquid nitrogen – an ice queen to sink the Titanic. But Leavel is an actress of humor and warmth with a gift, demonstrated in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “The Prom,” for self-parody. Miranda should make her underlings quiver in their Louboutin boots. Here, everyone stands tall enough.

Did Wetherhead’s book melt Miranda, or does Leavel lack the needed frost? Both, really. The musical offers him a belated confessional, “Stay On Top.” Because if you have a voice like Level’s, of course you should highlight it. But Miranda is not made for self-reflection. And “Stay On Top” doesn’t offer much anyway.

Curiously, the character that the musical represents the most is not the uncertain Andy or the evil Miranda, but Nigel, a cool cucumber. Along with “Dress Your Way Up,” the musical’s best number, he also delivers second-act “Seen,” a poignant song about how fashion magazines rescued him as a gay teenager. Muñoz, an accomplished performer, elevates both.

The musical’s first act ends with its title track, a suggestion that the fashion world is some kind of hell. “Hell is a track,” sings the chorus (with a sound mix so muddy I had to look up the lyrics later), “where the devil wears Prada.” But nothing in the show confirms this. Andy’s worst anxiety? His boss calls too often. “The Devil Wears Prada” isn’t as lavish as it should be or as biting as it is incisive. If he wants a life beyond Chicago, he could use some modifications.

The devil wears Prada
Through August 21 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, Chicago; www.devilwearspradmusical.com. Duration: 2h25.

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