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New musical version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ trips on the runway

A Chicago tryout for the stage adaptation, featuring songs by Elton John, needs decidedly more zhoozh

From left, Taylor Iman Jones, Javier Muñoz and Beth Leavel in “The Devil Wears Prada.” (Joan Marcus)

CHICAGO — Here’s my urgent plea to the makers of the new “The Devil Wears Prada” musical: Let Miranda be Miranda.

That’s all.

The unadulterated joy of the 2006 movie version of “The Devil Wears Prada” — starring Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, the venomous Gorgon wrapped in Dolce & Gabbana — was in that character’s malice disguised as editorial prerogative at a fictitious New York fashion rag. Now, in the new stage version with music by Elton John receiving a tryout run here at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, Miranda’s been toned down. To the advantage of no one, especially Beth Leavel, the veteran Broadway actress who inherits the role.

This musical adaptation, with direction by Anna D. Shapiro and costumes by Arianne Phillips that look as if Miranda shops at a discount Saks Off 5th, at this point radiates none of the style or the outrageous entitlement that made the movie such a guilty pleasure. With Streep in charge, the looks were killer and looks could kill. Perhaps to make Miranda more palatable for a musical, book writer Kate Wetherhead and the rest of the creative team have dialed down the bullying of Andrea “Andy” Sachs, the idealistic journalism major played by the charming Taylor Iman Jones, who is hired as Miranda’s second assistant.

While the humanitarian impulse is admirable, the effect on the story is deadly. It comes across now as a rather garden-variety tale of a young woman forced to adapt to an inconsiderate boss who occasionally pushes the cruelty button. One gets no idea of the transformation that occurs in Andy — of why rising to the challenge of impressing Miranda brings her satisfaction. And you watch, too, with the sense that HR has force fed Miranda a PowerPoint on workplace personality adjustment. It sort of half-worked on her, to the relief of her co-workers and the detriment of the rest of us.

A movie adaptation with Broadway aspirations — this one is produced by Kevin McCollum, one of the original producers of “Rent,” as well as last season’s hit, “Six” — sometimes attracts outsize attention, as “The Devil Wears Prada” has. Don’t ask me to count the number of times I’ve seen director David Frankel’s movie, based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger. (Replicated onstage is the priceless lecture appalled Miranda gives to clueless Andy, about the difference between blue and “cerulean.”)

The expectation of how Elton John and lyricist Shaina Taub, composer of off-Broadway’s recent “Suffs,” would musicalize the toxicity of Miranda’s Vogue-like Runway magazine turned Sunday night at the Nederlander into a rare convention of national critics. Such was the curiosity about this venture that in addition to the Chicago Tribune and other Chicago outlets, representatives were in attendance from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post and others.

The gathering seemed a marker of how ardently we’re all in search of the next big hit, at a time when the theater world feels oddly adrift. The death of Stephen Sondheim last fall left musical theater without an inspirational monarch; although Sondheim had not produced a new musical in years, his presence in our midst conferred an ongoing sense of importance, and genius, on the form. Elton John is a resonant songwriter, and he’s had Broadway success, with “The Lion King” and to a lesser extent, “Aida.”

But the workmanlike music for “The Devil Wears Prada” lacks the insouciant spirit of his best pieces. It’s a by-the-numbers pop score, embroidering the effect that Andy’s hours at Runway has on her relationships with boyfriend Nate (Michael Tacconi) and friends Lauren (Christiana Cole) and Kayla (Tiffany Mann). A bit more vividly, Megan Masako Haley sings the role Emily Blunt made uproariously her own in the movie, that of fashion-crazed, turf-obsessed first assistant Emily. Most successfully, “Hamilton” alumnus Javier Muñoz takes over where Stanley Tucci left off in the film, playing Nigel, the haplessly loyal Miranda acolyte — who is here rewarded with the evening’s best two numbers: “Dress Your Way Up” and “Seen.”

The musical can’t (and shouldn’t, really) regurgitate all the best moments from the movie, but the ones it does reprise lack the acidity of dishy social satire. The joy of the skewering has been lost. Even more disappointingly, the fashion sense on the sets of New York and Parisian ironwork feels off. Phillips’s costumes appear to be not so much on trend as on a budget.

It’s worth noting that Leavel certainly has the ultra-theatrical DNA for Miranda; in the stage version of “The Prom,” she played the campy musical theater star — whom Streep portrayed in the subsequent movie adaptation. With the trajectory now reversed, Leavel should have been granted the opportunity on the Nederlander stage for some all-out tyrannical hyperventilation.

The Devil Wears Prada, music by Elton John, lyrics by Shaina Taub, book by Kate Wetherhead. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Choreography, James Alsop; music supervision, Nadia DiGiallonardo; scenic design, Christine Jones and Brett Banakis; costumes, Arianne Phillips; lighting, Paule Constable; sound design, Nevin Steinberg; orchestrations, Giles Martin. With Christian Thompson. About 2 hours 25 minutes. Through Aug. 21 at James M. Nederlander Theatre, Chicago. broadwayinchicago.com/show/prada/

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