Taking an overly respectful and frankly miscalculated approach to its source materials — the 2003 roman à clef novel and the 2006 Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway-starring film — the new musical version of “The Devil Wears Prada,” now trying out in Chicago ahead of a projected Broadway run, provides some serviceable entertainment but needs a hefty dose of guilty, edgy fun to boost its mild pleasures.
At this stage in its development — having persevered mightily to reach its opening after enduring over 20 cases of COVID during rehearsals and previews — the show boasts an Elton John score that operates in too limited a register and a production from director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) that never quite decides between authentic glamor or a more theatricalized kind, resting right now in a merely semi-satisfying middle.
There’s plenty of skill and craft on display here, particularly in the lead performances. As the young protagonist Andy Sachs, Taylor Iman Jones (“Head Over Heels”) displays all the triple-threat potential you could ask for. And as Miranda Priestly (inspired by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour), Beth Leavel reveals her diva-dom toward the end when she sings a deliciously villainous soliloquy.
The book (by Kate Wetherhead) flows coherently and has moments of wit. The choreography from James Alsop has potential panache, inspired by the sharp, gestural poses of fashion modeling. The design work picks up in the second act, particularly in a clever set transition from Manhattan to Paris. And John’s score has its moments, providing his pleasing, peppy pop sound amid a sincere effort to give voice to the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters.
But the show just never lets loose. The fashion, from Arianne Phillips (the film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), feels neither period nor contemporary (the setting has been updated but unaggressively so). The tameness, alas, most impacts the portrayal of Miranda. The character here feels imprisoned by muted pantsuits, a sensible hairdo and multiple patter songs from John and lyricist Shaina Taub (“Suffs”) that come off as banal recitatives about appointments that need scheduling.
This represents the key miscalibration at the show’s core that requires remedying. Yes, sure, this is the tale of a young woman pursuing her dreams and losing her sense of self in the meantime. But to think that’s what made the book a bestseller and the movie a hit is to imagine that people read “Playboy” for the articles, or that people watch Fox News for the information. Here the appeal stems more from being giddily appalled at Miranda’s operatic condescension. The only reason Andy is even mildly tolerable in her own unconscious snobbery is that Miranda treats her so horrifically that we can’t help but root for her.
One of the most memorable scenes from the film isn’t anything aspirational, but when Miranda recounts to Andy why she gave her the job in the first place. “I said to myself, ‘Go ahead, take a chance. Hire the smart, fat girl.’”
Put that sentiment to song, Mr. John, and we’re going somewhere. Right now, it breezes past as a rare moment of forthrightness in the dialogue, just as the show oddly glosses past Andy’s spurred-on transformation to fashion forwardness with a single costume change during a song, “Dress Your Way Up,” that screams out for more.
There’s a lot of work needed to replace the sincere and fairly dull songs about the importance of jobs that pay the rent, the sadness of losing friendships, or (from the nice-guy Nigel, played by Javier Muñoz) the trials of growing up gay in the Midwest with songs that express the naked ambition, social irresponsibility and joyful artifice of the fashion industry. The title song, which serves as the Act I finale, comments about those things but doesn’t actually express them, coming across more enervating than energizing.
So the question here is a simple one. Can John, Shapiro, et al. — some of the most talented artists at work today — set niceness aside, and channel their inner Miranda Priestlys?