Making its pre-Broadway world premiere in Chicago this month, the new musical version of Lauren Weisberger’s (and the 2006 film adaptation) The Devil Wears Prada has the feel of a couture gown still in pieces on the mannequin, all unfinished seams, cloth swatches and straight pins. There’s clearly something beautiful and fun to behold in there, and it might even be gorgeous one day with a bit of polish and tailoring. But in its current state, the new musical—directed by Anna D. Shapiro, with a book by Kate Wetherhead, music by Elton John and lyrics by Shaina Taub—feels like that in-progress dress, full of potential but certainly not ready for any window displays just yet. The show is so new (and still, one presumes, in flux) that its merch table consisted of little more than a couple of t-shirt options, a magnet and a keychain, and the playbill itself doesn’t even list the musical numbers yet.
Wetherhead’s book hews quite closely to the beloved film version that starred an iconic Meryl Streep as Anna Wintour stand-in Miranda Priestly and a dewy-eyed Anne Hathaway as the new, naive assistant Andrea Sachs. Many of the film’s most famous lines are left intact—creative director Nigel (a boisterous and engaging Javier Muñoz, easily the best talent on stage) delivers his classic “gird your loins!” line within the show’s first ten minutes. That said, the production takes pains to update the narrative for a contemporary audience, with references to the sorts of social media, celebrities and cultural touch points that didn’t even exist in the mid-aughts. Andrea (“Andy for short”) is played by Taylor Iman Jones, a young woman with an impressive set of pipes and a charming way of modernizing her character, with mousy timidity early on and a flair for serving looks by the show’s vibrant second act. Beth Leavel is Miranda Priestly, who is every bit as icy as Streep’s version, if absent the signature shock of silver hair. The cast is rounded out by Megan Masako Haley as Emily, Priestly’s first assistant and a budding fashionista; Michael Tacconi as Andy’s chef boyfriend Nate; and Tiffany Mann and Christina Cole as Kayla and Lauren, respectively, Andy’s roommates and the two most criminally underdeveloped characters of the show.
For the uninitiated, The Devil Wears Prada centers around new-grad Andy on the hunt for an “important” journalism job in New York City. When she’s offered a low-level job as assistant to Priestly, editor-in-chief of Runway magazine (a stand-in for Vogue), Andy takes it thinking she can bide her time for a year and parlay the job into something more to hebr liking elsewhere. A baptism by fire, Andy learns quickly how seriously her new colleagues take their work, and soon is thriving in the demanding job even if she’s changing so much her boyfriend and friends barely recognize her any more. She goes from an ugly duckling who wears “lumpy blue sweaters” in cerulean, to a fashion plate modeling the latest Chanel boots and looks straight from the runway. At the heart of the story are these two women at different stages of their careers and more alike than they realize. As narratives go, it’s far from pressing social commentary. But it is—at least it’s supposed to be—a devilishly good time watching beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes going about their beautiful lives in beautiful cities.
Adapting existing material into a musical requires that songs are retrofitted into an existing plot; for the most part, John and Taub find creative and catchy ways to make the music in The Devil Wears Prada make sense. Priestly’s entire personality is one of such disdain and emotional remove that it’s hard to imagine her bursting out into a showstopper shortly after she walks coolly on stage. So instead, her early numbers are more conversational than melodic, and in a way, it actually kind of works. So, too, do both of Nigel’s big numbers, from the flashy “Dress Your Way Up,” a party of a song with John’s energy in every note, to the moving and timely “Seen,” an anthem for queer visibility. Andy gets a couple of solid numbers in, too, though none of this handful of noteworthy entries have the immediate appeal of an instant classic like Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity,” or Dear Evan Hansen‘s “You Will Be Found.” In fact, more of the show’s songs are forgettable or outright duds, like the painfully on-the-nose first act finale (I literally gasped “Oh, no!” when I realized where the lyrics were going) or a lame attempt at conflict with the boyfriend and roommates Andy has left behind. These ballads are so dull and lifeless (not to mention with stakes so low as to be laughable) that there’s nearly no reason at all for this devastatingly underdeveloped subplot to even exist.
Costumes by Arianne Phillips are bold and fun, a strong showing in a production that must, at the very least, get this part right. Scenic (and media) design by Christine Jones and Brett Banakis is sleek and simple, with glass partitions that fog up on cue and steel archways that represent New York’s gritty city streets; projections on the stage’s back wall place us in various scenes, from Runway‘s offices high up in a skyscraper to the dive bar Andy and her friends frequent to the glittering sunset in Paris. How the creative team transitions us from Manhattan to the City of Light justly earned applause from the opening night crowd, a truly seamless and impressive transition. But like the musical numbers, it’s a brief shining moment in an otherwise fairly unremarkable approach, as the use of a rotating stage and colorful lighting doesn’t exactly spell innovation any more.
By the time Andy realizes that she’s sacrificing too much of herself for the demands of the job and her ambitious boss, most of the energy in The Devil Wears Prada has dwindled to a slow burn. The show comes to a quiet, almost sputtering end, one that’s terribly out of character for a production that tried to go so big just a few scenes earlier. The version of The Devil Wears Prada that Chicago audiences are getting a first look at now might yet make its way to Broadway (a transfer to New York is slated for 2023), and tourists looking to catch something familiar and sufficiently entertaining on the Great White Way will appreciate it well enough when it does. Groundbreaking American musical theater it is not, but that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker. It’s just that as it is, The Devil Wears Prada is nothing quite remarkable, either. What the show needs is a bit more of a discerning eye, a Miranda Priestly of its own, perhaps, to trim and shape and accessorize this promising first draft into something truly runway ready.
The Devil Wears Prada runs through August 21 at the James R. Nederlander Theater (24 W. Randolph); more info and tickets online here.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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