CHICAGO (AP) — A movie musical that wants to have its cake and eat it, too, and still fit into a sample size, “The Devil Wears Prada” opened at the James M. Nederlander Theater here Sunday. With music by rock god Elton John and lyrics by Off-Broadway sweetheart Shaina Taub (“Suffs”), it seemed poised to set a trend or two.
Although the show takes place in a fashion magazine, its creative team does not seem to have agreed on a style. Is this a heartfelt story of a young woman’s upbringing (romantic, professional, dress up) or a Fashion Week bash? An investigation into toxic work culture or an excuse to put an Eiffel Tower (technically, two Eiffel Towers) on stage? This is a show that has tried everything in her wardrobe. Nothing fits.
Adapted from the 2006 film, itself adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 encoding novel from her year at Condé Nast, it follows Andy Sachs (Taylor Iman Jones), a recent journalism graduate. Andy has big dreams. The Big Apple quickly crushes them in “I Mean Business”, the show’s efficient start. After six months of rejections, he somehow lands a coveted job at Runway, a fictional understudy for Vogue, as second assistant to his overbearing editor, Miranda Priestly (Beth Leavel).
Andy doesn’t care about fashion. She has the knitted stockings to prove it. But she needs a job to pay the rent. (Yes, the musical assumes that an entry-level media gig guarantees financial security. How expensive.) So she makes what she perceives to be the first of many Faustian deals: put her dreams on hold and hold out for a year.
“My voice can wait,” he tells Miranda. I mean, Joan Didion started at Vogue. But sure.
The problem is that Andy is not very good at her job. She certainly lacks the manic perfectionism and crazy wardrobe of Emily Charlton, the poisonous first assistant (Megan Masako Haley, lost until act two). For help, she turns to the magazine’s creative director, Nigel Owens (Javier Muñoz), who gives her a much-needed makeover on “Dress Your Way Up,” a power ballad inspired by the Met’s costume collection and the topic of the cup of coffee. that he should dress for the job he wants.
But Andy remains ambivalent about his job. And is a hot pink romper and thigh-high boots really anyone’s idea of office wear? (The costumes, which range from the flamboyant, the chorus, to the unpersuasive and oddly wrinkled, the leads, are by Arianne Phillips.) The musical is also ambivalent. The film, with its fancier costumes and more substantial visual pleasures, seemed grudgingly to admire the fashion industry, as a trade, as an art. The show, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, a serious artist who you wouldn’t have associated with glitter 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 late-season. The choreography, by James Alsop, differs from the vernacular of Broadway, with hints of the ballroom. Of course there is fashion. Although Kate Wetherhead’s book makes some updates (there is a reference to collagen powder), she doesn’t have a point of view. And on a show with an avowed aversion to starches, the jokes are profoundly cheesy.
“That I have to do?” Andy groans as Miranda approaches.
“Find a better scrub, to start with,” says Nigel.
Sometimes I wondered what a writer who takes bigger, biting comic turns (Bess Wohl, eg, Jocelyn Bioh, Halley Feiffer) could have done with this material. Would a sheet music that recognized the last 40 years of popular music have made a difference? This version takes Jones, a charismatic actress with a snappy, supple voice, and gives her little to do except stress and hesitate. (She shinesno scrub needed, by the way). And while magazines like Vogue eventually admitted the lack of diversity, the musical never acknowledges that all of those mistreated by Miranda, who is white, are people of color.
“The Devil Wears Prada” wants to impart 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 and media designers, have a lot of fun with Paris. But Andy, a woman with no professional background, seems to feel that fashion is somehow beneath her. Even when he comes to appreciate haute couture on a personal level (“Who is she?”), he never recognizes it as substantial and turns down the opportunity to write about it. It remains frivolous, unserious girl stuff, which gives the musical, despite the presence of so many women on the creative team, a shadow of anti-feminism.
None of the female characters on the show support each other until near the end. Andy’s two roommates (Christiana Cole and Tiffany Mann) are so sketched out that I never got their names. They still make time to judge her. As it seems, she is 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 flair, demonstrated in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “The Prom,” for parody of herself. Miranda should have her underlings shivering in her Louboutin boots. Here, everyone stands quite tall.
Has Wetherhead’s book melted Miranda, or does Leavel lack the necessary frost? Both, really. The musical gives him a late confessional, “Stay On Top”. Because if you have a voice like Leavel’s, of course you have to put it on display. But Miranda is not cut out for self-reflection. And “Stay On Top” doesn’t offer much anyway.
Interestingly, the character the musical most fully represents is not the insecure Andy or the petty Miranda, but the genius Nigel. In addition to “Dress Your Way Up,” the best number in the musical, it also offers “Seen” from act two, a poignant song about how fashion magazines came to his aid when he was a gay teenager. Muñoz, an accomplished performer, elevates both.
The first act of the musical closes with the title song, a suggestion that the world of fashion is some kind of hell. “Hell is a runway,” sings the chorus (with a mix of sounds so muddy I had to look up the lyrics later), “where the devil wears Prada.” But nothing in the program confirms it. The worst anguish that Andy suffers? His boss calls too often. “The Devil Wears Prada” is neither as sumptuous as it should be nor as bitingly 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 Theater, Chicago; devilwearspradamusical.com. Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes.