Early in the first act of “The Devil Wears Prada; The Musical,” Andy, a frumpy self-important recent college grad, is up for a job as a personal assistant to Miranda Priestly (a thinly veiled take on Vogue’s Anna Wintour). Miranda debunks Andy’s cookie-cutter idealism with a deliciously vicious monologue that includes the line, “Who has time for handbags when democracy’s at stake?”
This is the conundrum at the soul of the musical, now in its pre-Broadway world premiere at the Nederlander Theatre, which is how to update a story that is so early-2000s for a today when, among other things, toxic bosses are no longer acceptable and fashion purports to be more inclusive. Fortunately the fixes are not overdone—a handful of contemporary buzzwords are thrown in and Miranda’s takedown of Andy’s wokeness is driven by wordplay, not worldview. More notable is that Andy is now Black, and Nigel’s sexual orientation is open rather than implied—”I am not your gay fairy godmother,” he says to Andy before he gives her a makeover like, well, a gay fairy godmother. More poignantly, Nigel, played by Javier Munoz, is now happily married and, in “Seen Finally Seen,” sings his story of how fashion saved him as a bullied young gay boy in Kalamazoo.
It’s one of the better songs but, alas, “The Devil Wears Prada” is mired in theatrical purgatory. Most surprisingly, the music by Elton John and Shaina Taub is not memorable, a problem for any musical but a huge issue when the iconic status of the creator launches expectations into the stratosphere. Most of the stronger tunes, like the titular “The Devil Wears Prada” that closes the first act with a spectacular ball based on the Met Gala, are EDM-driven, which is completely on point for a fashion show, but not exactly the stuff of show-tune singalongs. Nor is, I’m afraid, the show-tuney would-be hit, “Dress Your Way Up.”
The book is more problematic than the music, with issues that date back to the original novel. This material lends itself best to a satire of the culture of vanity, a subject more in vogue than ever. The offices of Runway magazine crackle in director Anna Shapiro’s vision, a perpetual fashion show, popping with wit and color and energy. But the story insists on grounding itself in the maudlin morality tale of Andy and her friends, earnest and striving but, well, dull, a tone the production design reinforces by setting their scenes in dark and drab palettes at a pool hall or in a dingy apartment, with songs that sink as soon as they are sung.
I’ve always been frustrated by the feminist subtext, or lack thereof, in this story. Miranda is a brilliant boss, an icon who is smart and perceptive; she torments her underlings but it’s in pursuit of excellence; she does what it takes to survive in a world that conspires against her. So when Andy, whose character has been on a journey of professional growth up to this point, deserts Miranda to revert to a homespun idea of her “true self,” none of it rings true. As Andy says before the story abruptly falls apart at the end, Miranda is a “force of nature” and worthy of respect. A man such as this would be a master of the universe, but we’re supposed to see Miranda as Cruella de Vil.
The novel and movie were huge hits in spite of these story problems, and this musical might just follow suit. Much works very well here, starting with the direction. Former Steppenwolf artistic director Anna Shapiro (Tony winner for “August: Osage County”) may be helming her first musical, but her experience and intelligence as a director keeps that a secret. The show abounds with cleverness.
The production design of Christine Jones and Brett Banakis, from the simple use of photo proof-sheets and full-frame slides to a transition of a New York bridge into the Eiffel Tower. is remarkable, and the choreography (James Alsop) and costume design (Arianne Phillips) transport the audience to a front-row seat at the best fashion show ever mounted.
Taylor Iman Jones puts as much heart into Andy as anyone could, while Beth Leavel manages to turn Miranda into a three-dimensional character in spite of what’s on the page.
In fact, I could watch Miranda and Nigel say their lines all night long. If wit has lost its place in the modern world, call me old-fashioned, I guess.
At the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph, through August 21. Tickets at BroadwayinChicago.com