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  • David Zak

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA wows, but needs work!

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA is a heroic achievement. With a cast of 27, a great-sounding orchestra, and spectacular scenic, lighting, and costume designs, audiences who come in loving the material will experience an evening of explosive joy. Are there still bumps to iron out? Indeed. But congratulations to the producing team. And kudos to Chicago audiences who showed up and stood up for this pre-Broadway tryout!

There were probably only a few people like me that had neither read the book nor seen the movie in the sea of opening night fans. The crowd yelped and cheered throughout, but while I had a good time, I was more an observer than a participant.

Fresh-out-of-college writer Andy Sachs (Taylor Iman Jones) has been unable to find a job. She unexpectedly is hired as the second assistant to 'force of nature' Miranda Priestly (Beth Leavel), editor of the fashion magazine Runway, who terrifies her staff as she towers over her industry.

The first of scenic and media designers Christine Jones & Brett Banakis's great tricks is the elevator ride from gritty ground-level New York to an office sky-high above Central Park. Andy is overwhelmed by the glamour of the Runway office and staff. But Miranda pays no attention to Andy until she gets an extreme makeover from Nigel (Javier Muñoz), Miranda's gay art director.

Andy's two roommates and boyfriend, Nate (Michael Taconi), get scant attention in their dark and dingy world. The musical is surprisingly free of romance. Nate's relationship with Andy seems nearly platonic. Her dalliance in Paris with Christian Thompson is nicely choreographed but upstaged by a hot erotic dance between two pairs of same-sex dancers. Only Nigel gets a considerable production number and a reflective ballad, and Muñoz is terrific in both. Alas, his moment of defeat is brushed aside instead of dramatized. But we get to know him better than most.

Tony Award-winning Director Anna D. Shapiro keeps the huge cast moving briskly, especially in the relentless first 30 minutes. Once things settle down in the second act, we have a chance to breathe and feel. Choreographer James Alsop has a terrific ensemble of dancers, but they are often pushed into a narrow apron in front of a curtain or set piece. The movement is exciting but never beautiful.

Costume Designer Arianne Phillips seemed to have an unlimited budget. But the costumes never feel like fashion. Lighting designer Paul Constable pulls off every trick you have seen in a Broadway show - often all at once. It is effective work.

I was not fond of the final image of cherry blossoms to indicate springtime in New York, and the impact of the vast but ugly stairs for the first act's finale was defeated by the long delay taken to set it up.

Chicago actors Jim Ortlieb and Sawyer Smith have lovely moments. Ortlieb plays the piece's villain. He deserves to have his demise dramatized instead of talked about. Smith made the most of every moment of stage time in the Runway offices.

Producer Kevin McCollum explained in the curtain call that they were given the green light to update the piece to today. Perhaps that is part of the problem? Would Amanda's terrorizing behavior cause a flood of social media protests in the real world today? Why isn't she lionized as a woman who triumphed over the male-dominated industry and kept her crown? Does a person today still need to have an extreme makeover to reach their dreams? Or can people of all sizes, genders, ages, and colors succeed no matter their footwear?

Alas, the final thing to mention is the disappointing score. The lyrics by Shaina Taub have no wit, and Elton John's music is similarly dull. Can a musical be great without at least one classic number? If the audiences can only hum the sets and costumes on the way out of the theater, can that musical thrive?

Only time will tell. But PRADA has tremendous creative talents backed by big money to make a move to New York.

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