The reason Lauren Weisberger’s satirical memoir “The Devil Wears Prada” became famous wasn’t just because of the juicy schadenfreude-y movie with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. It’s because Weisberger was self-aware enough to see that her thirst for power included herself.
For one thing, he pulled out his knives and dissected the terrifying tastemaker Miranda, a stand-in for Anna Wintour, a bourgeois feminist survivor with a veiled vulnerability. On the other hand, he knew that the very act of writing the memoir meant that his alter ego Andy was no different from Miranda, even though it covered up his hunger for the limelight in virtue signaling and that hateful cocktail of stubble. Brooklyn style. expensive chefs and Twitter warriors. Weisberger knew that ambitious 20-somethings desperate for glamorous media jobs will freeze their elders before they can say “I’m saving you space.” She implicated herself and reaped her just reward.
So did, of course, Streep and Hathaway, both immensely skilled players. But the main problem with the bland and faltering new musical version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” which features a book by Kate Wetherhead and a score by Elton John and which opened Sunday night at a Chicago audition under the direction by Anna D. Shapiro , is that she has not yet found the guts to follow that same path, despite the enormous satirical opportunity. More specifically, Weisberger’s sexy, self-aware satire has been given a self-righteous twist, that Miranda would hate cerulean sweaters even more.
To be sure, the show is reasonably entertaining. But especially given all the COVID considerations, it’s far enough from done that it hasn’t merited as many coastal media judges at the Nederlander Theater on Sunday night, blowing away the concept of the pre-Broadway test (very Miranda) . As they say in every Zoom meeting: there is much more work to be done.
Job one is the addition of more wit and irreverence to Wetherhead’s book and Shaina Taub’s lyrics. The film’s appeal rested on two fundamental human pleasures: seeing beautiful humans model stunning fashion art, and seeing people behave very badly in ways the viewer would never dare. It was not about learning moral lessons at all.
The show first has to offer a more legitimate runway experience: Arianne Phillips’ wardrobe is fine as theatrical design, but I suspect audiences will expect something that feels more like the work of actual fashion houses. Neither of the two leads, played by Beth Leavel and Taylor Iman Jones, have enough of a style of their own, and strangely, the show glosses over the big change in the movie when geeky Andy reinvents herself as a high-fashion stylist. Act 2 is stronger in this regard, it helps a lot when the show leaves New York and arrives in Paris, but it’s still a major problem.
The clever part is just as important. Despite a dazzling ensemble of dancers, the show needs to be funnier, smoother, and move much faster, given that Miranda is a whirling dervish. To see an example of what works and what doesn’t, you need only look at the close of Act 1 and a scene at the beginning of Act 2. The former is a red-nose devil fantasy, which is downright horrifying, while the Act 2 finds its way with a cool stage transition from designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis that finally evokes some of the “La La Land” glamor audiences have come to see. The underlined show is currently much stronger overall in that second act, but it’s slow work to get to that point. Everything here should proceed with much more confidence and less nervousness.
Both leads could, I think, be very good. Leavel needs at least one more non-pattern song to show what he can do, but he’s never without the truth. As attractive as he is, Jones has to delve into his own cruelty (we all have some) to unlock his performance. The key, of course, is that Miranda is always right about Andy because she recognizes herself. I’m afraid Wetherhead is too much in love with Andy. It’s time to think clearly there. This isn’t a seminar, this is “The Devil Wears Prada,” for God’s sake.
What we crave from Taub’s lyrics is further removed from the book: they often feel like reaffirmations of what the characters have just said rather than fundamentally emotional experiences. You can see the beginning of this in a few issues, and Taub has the talent if he lets loose. But there is only one beginning.
Elton John has five very strong songs here, including “Dress Your Way Up,” a spirited dance number from Act 2, and a very moving ballad about the relationship of fashion and the gay community for Nigel, the betrayed underling played by Javier. Munoz. But the piece needs three or four more; none of the leaders can really show what they can do. And the ending, currently a wet squid, is in desperate need of John’s help.
To Chicago audiences, of course, these works in progress are always fascinating. Producer Kevin McCollum, to his credit, has offered plenty of opportunities here for artists who haven’t worked on a major musical before. But everyone here could do with rereading the book and better appreciating that this is an article about people behaving in a mercenary fashion, drawn to glamor like moths to a flame.
Of course, we’re only on the planet for a short time, so there’s an argument for working your way to self-realization. In any case, we see these types of characters in the theater because they dare to do what we, the scaredy ones, do not do. All while looking so much better than the rest of us.
Reorient around that and “Prada” has a chance. It is, after all, a great brand.
Chris Jones is a reviewer for the Tribune.
Review: “The Devil Wears Prada”
When: until August 21
Where: Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St.
Duration: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$95.50 at 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com