A scene from the Broadway-bound musical The Devil Wears Prada. A young Black woman stands on the far left. A middle-aged white man and a middle-aged white woman stand facing her. We see other actors behind floor-length office windows behind them, along with racks of clothing. A large blue sign reading RUNWAY is over their heads
From left: Taylor Iman Jones, Javier Muñoz, and Beth Leavel along with the ensemble of The Devil Wears Prada at the Nederlander Theatre Credit: Joan Marcus

There’s a brand new dance / But I don’t know its name / That people from bad homes / Do again and again / It’s big and it’s bland / Full of tension and fear / They do it over there / But we don’t do it here. – “Fashion,” David Bowie

The new Broadway-bound musical version of The Devil Wears Prada has a haute couture pedigree, including a score by Sir Elton John and direction by Anna D. Shapiro, formerly the artistic director of Steppenwolf, making her debut as a musical director with this show. And of course it’s stepping into the Louboutins of Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, who starred in the smash 2006 film version of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 tell-all novel about the fashion industry.

The Devil Wears Prada
Through 8/21: Tue 7:30 PM, Wed 2 and 8 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, 800-775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $35-$120

The show in its current incarnation offers intermittent delights, including some eye-catching costumes by Arianne Phillips. (Keep in mind that, like Gilda Radner, my fashion sense is based on whatever doesn’t itch, so you may well disagree.) Kate Wetherhead’s book and Shaina Taub’s lyrics deliver trademark vicious barbs reminiscent of the original. It also makes some welcome nods toward updating the material. 

But while it’s not exactly big and bland (well, not entirely bland, anyway), it also doesn’t go far enough to underscore the tension and fear underlying the world of Runway magazine, presided over by ice priestess Miranda Priestly (Beth Leavel). In a time of pandemic and general malaise, when a lot of people are questioning why on earth they should kill themselves for jobs that will never love them back, that feels like a missed opportunity. (It’s worth noting that the curtain call at Sunday’s opening mentioned the indispensable role of understudies and swings, given the rising rates of COVID-19 among large-cast shows. That raises its own question of how much we’re asking people to put themselves at risk to entertain us.)

Taylor Iman Jones plays Andy Sachs, the budding creative nonfiction writer who ends up as second assistant to Miranda and finds herself both inspired and terrified by the imperious older woman. In one of the best scenes, which fans of the film will recall, Leavel’s Miranda dresses down (pardon the pun) Jones’s Andy for the latter’s snark about which of two seemingly identical belts would work best on a dress. “This stuff,” as Andy dismisses fashion, affects her whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not—right down to her frumpy cerulean sweater. (Leavel is generally terrific throughout, smartly discerning that vocally underplaying her displeasure makes it all the more frightening to behold, and the show should give her more opportunities to stab her stiletto heels at the soft underbelly of her opponents.)

Jones is Black, and the decision to move away from a white woman in the role, as Shapiro told me in a conversation a few months ago, was deliberate. Similarly, the role of Emily Charlton, the first assistant who is desperate to go to Paris Fashion Week with Miranda, is played by an Asian actor, Megan Masako Haley. There is, I would argue, a missed opportunity here to delve into what it means for women of color to negotiate a world that has generally promoted tall thin white women as the literal model of beauty, and to explore how being “ambitious” when you’re one of the only people of your race to be in a high-pressure world gets defined differently. (Just ask Vice President Kamala Harris, who has seemingly spawned an entire cottage industry of pundits examining whether or not her laugh is sincere, about that phenomenon.)

In a late-night hotel room scene where Miranda tells Andy she’s about to get a second divorce, Miranda opens up a bit about how much she has to fight the media—of which she is of course a part!—on her (self-created) icy image. The question of how much Andy has to fight to be seen, and how much she wonders if she can ever be as successful as, say, Roxane Gay (who is name-checked by Miranda in a patter song early on where she ticks off everything she imagines Andy hopes for in life), hangs in the air for a moment before vanishing in the mist of Andy’s reassurances to Miranda. 

Similarly, there is a real opportunity for the show to demonstrate how the tension and fear between Andy and Emily could be at least partially the result of two women of color being set against each other by an older successful white woman. Miranda may rightly see some of herself in Andy (no matter how hard Andy denies it), but she’ll never have the same experiences as a woman of color, and it feels like the musical sidesteps that reality.

None of this is the fault of Jones’s performance, by the way: She’s endearing in her early earnestness, and her transformation to a fashionista still lets us see how unsure she is about entering a world that her past self has mocked. That vulnerability deserves more support in the material.

No one expects (or wants) Marxist dialectics from an eye-candy musical. But even the stage version of Legally Blonde brought a little bit of class consciousness to the relationship between Elle and Emmett. Andy does have a fling with rising writer Christian Thompson (played, amusingly enough, by . . . Christian Thompson), but her relationships with longtime beau Nate (Michael Tacconi) and Lauren and Kayla, her roommates/friends from childhood (Christiana Cole and Tiffany Mann, respectively) feel underdeveloped. Again, it’s interesting to view the demands upon her from all sides from the perspective of a young Black woman expected to do it all and be available for everyone all the time, while somehow also being apologetic about her desire to succeed in a highly competitive field. Oh, and being flawlessly put together and stylish, to boot.

So clearly I have some issues with the book (which, in fairness, have been present since Weisberger’s bestseller first emerged). What about the songs? Those fare better, thanks in part to the fact that the big bold world of fashion is a natural for people to sing about (even if they’re not David Bowie). There are plenty of Elton John hooks to enjoy. Javier Muñoz as Nigel, Runway՚s creative director, shines in an act two ballad where he explains what the world of fashion meant to him as a bullied gay kid in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Dress Your Way Up,” also in act two (which is generally stronger than act one), is a delicious number where James Alsop’s choreography really kicks into high gear. The act one closer, “The Devil Wears Prada,” is campy as hell (I mean, it’s set at the Met Gala, so what else could it be?) and I unashamedly loved it, because it hints at the bad taste and narcissism that’s also so much a part of what we love about fashion. 

Christine Jones and Brett Banakis’s set and media design is efficient and ooh-ahh worthy, particularly the transformation into Paris. Shapiro’s direction offers some funny side moments, glances, and bits that flesh out the competing worlds Andy is negotiating, and could definitely use more of those. But as of now, the show feels like it’s trying to have it both ways: it’s a halfway homage to the delicious dishiness of the original, while also trying to show that it’s not insensitive to how the vicious and exclusionary aspects of that world have real-life consequences, particularly for people who don’t fit the mold. Fashion, as Nigel touchingly reminds us, offers a dream for misfits. It can also trap us in stereotypes. 

Dish can have depth. Big doesn’t have to be bland. With a little more attention paid to tension and fear in the social dynamics that the show’s hinting at, and a deeper commitment to the personal stakes between the two women at the center of the story, The Devil Wears Prada will be more runway-worthy.