Having conquered both Harvard Law School and Hollywood in the movie smash that made Reese Witherspoon an A-list star, Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods then went on to take Broadway by storm as the heroine of 2007’s Legally Blonde The Musical. Now, the not-so-dumb-blonde has arrived at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre in a textbook example of how to turn a hit celluloid romcom into a nigh-on-perfect Broadway musical.

Book writer Heather Hach knows not to fool with success, sticking closely to Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s film adaptation of Amanda Brown’s novel: Jilted UCLA Fashion Merchandising grad Elle aces her LSATs, wins over the Harvard University Admissions board, and enters Harvard Law School in a bid to win back the heart of ex-boyfriend and future political hopeful Warner Huntington III, who’s dumped her in favor of someone “less of a Marilyn and more of a Jackie.” Naturally, Elle finds herself in for a lot more than she bargained for in Harvard’s hallowed Ivy League halls, and in admitting Elle to its student body, so does the oldest law school in the U.S.

Legally Blonde The Musical does pretty much everything right, adding to the movie’s proven crowd-pleasing plot one of the brightest and best Broadway scores in recent years (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin), one rousing dance number after another (choreography by Tony-winner Jerry Mitchell,) snappy direction (also by Mitchell), and performances that honor the movie originals without aping them.  Tony nominations went to three original Broadway cast members (including Laura Bell Bundy in the title role), and if Friday’s opening night performance at the Pantages is any indication, the cast of the First National Tour, headed by the divine and delicious Becky Gulsvig, is every bit as splendid.

More than any musical in recent memory, Legally Blonde features songs which actually advance the plot rather than simply providing an entertaining musical interlude between stretches of dialog. Listen to the Original Cast Recording, as I have more times that I could count, and you have Elle’s story told almost entirely in song.  That’s not to say that Hach’s book is superfluous.  It isn’t. It’s funny, charming, and intelligent—and fills in all the blanks.  For once, though, a Broadway musical has songs that are not only tuneful and catchy, they’re also absolutely integral to the show. O’Keefe and Benjamin are also masters of the mini-reprise, song chunks that reappear in medley-like numbers at appropriate moments, like old friends. No wonder this is one score you will likely find yourself recalling even after hearing it just once.

“Omigod You Guys” opens the show with bang upon bang, introducing us first to Elle’s UCLA Delta Nu sorority sisters toasting an absent Elle’s impending engagement, then to Elle’s pet Chihuahua Bruiser (“He’s not an animal. He’s family”) who tells the gals where to find their soror. She’s at the Old Valley Mall, yip-yips Bruiser, shopping for just the right dress to wear to dinner tonight, because tonight is the night that boyfriend Warner will surely propose.  A snooty dress shop employee tries to hoodwink Elle into buying last year’s dress at this year’s price, but she’s no match for the savvy Miss Woods. The dress “may be perfect for a blonde, but I’m not that blonde,” Elle chastises the salesgirl.  By the end of the song (yes, we’re still in the show-stopping opening number), Elle has donned the perfect gown and is off to get proposed to, or so she thinks.

Fans of the movie will be in for few plot surprises in the musical, but in deference to Legally Blonde virgins, no more of the plot will be revealed here than is absolutely necessary.  Suffice it to say that the road to a Harvard Law Degree and (hopefully) Warner’s hand in marriage is a rocky one, filled with unexpected twists and turns.

Without giving away too much storyline, here are some of Legally Blonde’s greatest musical moments:

•Elle’s “personal essay” to the Harvard Board Of Admissions, in the movie a showy home video, in the musical a splashy production number (“What You Want”) featuring hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Chad and the UCLA Marching Band
•“So Much Better,” Legally Blonde’s answer to Wicked’s Act One closer “Defying Gravity,” as Elle celebrates her first major success as a Harvard law student
•“Whipped Into Shape,” a taeboe/jump rope aerobics class taught by fitness guru turned accused murderess Brook Wyndham—begun in her exercise studio, continued behind prison walls, and even extended into her defense team’s law office, featuring some of the most exciting (and physically exhausting) choreography in memory
•Bend And Snap, an R&B celebration of the 99% effective man-catching move taught by Elle to best buddy/hairstylist Paulette
•Legally Blonde’s title tune, which starts off as the musical’s most beautiful, haunting melody and poignant lyric, then turns into a high energy reprise, fittingly entitled “Legally Blonde Remix,” which includes exciting, hilarious, and entirely appropriate Riverdance moves (you’ll see why).

Hach’s book is about as funny as they come, with great lines like “This is the kind of girl Warner wants.  Someone serious.  Someone lawyerly.  Someone who wears black when nobody’s dead!” and “Thanks for the great tip on the costume party Vivian. I see you came as last year’s sample sale” and “Whoever said tangerine was the new pink was seriously disturbed!”

All of the above quotes come out of the mouth of Elle, played here by the enchanting, vivacious Helsvig (a member of Legally Blonde’s original Broadway cast), paying tribute to the movie’s Witherspoon while making the part all her own, and proving her star quality and triple-threat talents to the Elleth degree.  As upper class law student and Elle-mentor Emmett, D.B. Bonds is every bit the likeable good guy Luke Wilson was in the film, with the addition of some serious pipes, shown off in Emmett’s advice to Elle to develop a “Chip On My Shoulder.”  Natalie Joy Johnson, Enid in the original cast, here gets promoted to the much bigger role of street-smart but self-esteem-challenged Paulette, a role she nails (and makes absolutely her own).  Johnson gets to sing the beautiful (and seemingly out-of-left-field) ballad “Ireland,” which later gets a great eleventh hour payoff.

Ken Land makes for a suitably smarmy Professor Callahan, and his silkily sung “Blood In The Water” will resonate with anyone who’s ever told a lawyer joke.  Jeff McLean is perfectly cast as Warner, the GQ model-handsome rat Elle follows to Harvard, and his self-absorbed rendition of “Serious” is a hilarious take-off on every romantic idol singer in history. Megan Lewis does fine work as Vivienne, Elle’s snooty rival for Warner’s love. Coleen Sexton is simply sensational as Brooke, the show’s “triple-threatiest” role. Gretchen Burghart gets many laughs as Enid, Elle’s women’s-libber classmate.

In one of Legally Blonde The Musical’s cleverest conceits, Elle’s three best sorority sister chums Serena, Margot, and Pilar (Cortney Wolfson, Rhiannon Hansen, and Crystal Joy, all three great) follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus, every “tragedy” deserving one, and provide killer backup to many of Elle’s songs.

Among ensemble tracks, standout work is done by Brian Patrick Murphy, who not only gets to show off his rapper creds as Grandmaster Chad, but also displays first-rate comedic chops as both of Paulette’s boyfriends, the trailer-trashy Dewey and Kyle, the hunkiest UPS man ever to grace a musical theater stage. Murphy and Johnson have great chemistry as the show’s most unexpected, and sexiest couple.

Also featured in the terrific all-Equity cast are Barry Anderson, Sara Andreas, Kyle Brown (Carlos), Nick Dalton, Amber Efe (Store Manager/Judge), Tiffany Engen, dance captain Spencer Howard, Paul Jackel (Dad/Winthrop), dance captain Sarah Marie Jenkins, Rusty Mowery, Mamie Parris (Courtney/Mom/Whitney), Alex Puette, Tally Sessions (Aaron), Sara Sheperd (Kate/Chutney), Lauren Ashley Zakrin, and Adam Zelasko (Nikos/Padamadan).

My only “Objection, your Honor” to Legally Blonde is its butt-of-jokes treatment of its (minor) gay characters. The movie’s out-and-proud Enid is here a woman so unsure or embarrassed by her apparent sexual orientation that she is reduced to sputtering silence when called the L word.  Gay male characters range from swishy to flaming, and there was no reason for director Mitchell to have the actor playing Carlos make him the flamingest of them all. Just as many laughs would have been gotten with a straighter acting Carlos.  I would have liked to see more shades of the gay rainbow, your Honor.

Off my soapbox and back to what makes Legally Blonde so great, there’s David Rockwell’s mostly florescent-hued set design, featuring the brightest pinks ever seen on a Broadway stage, and Doric columns throughout to make the show’s Greek Chorus feel right at home. Gregg Barnes’s costumes are an absolute treat, from Elle’s pinks to Claudette’s funky mini-dresses to Elle’s sorority sister coed garb to Brooke and fellow inmates’ orange prison jumpsuits to the law students’ Harvard drab to Bruiser’s Chihuahua chic.  Kenneth Posner lights sets and costumes to perfection, and Acme Sound Partners’ sound design is crisp and clear. David Brian Brown’s wig and hair design fit each character to a T, Elle’s signature blond locks getting steadily longer and less permed as Elle becomes less hair-preoccupied. Bill Berloni gets high marks for training Frankie (Bruiser) and Nellie (Rufus).  The Legally Blonde orchestra is rockingly conducted by music director/keyboardist Kyle Norris.

With its run limited to an all-too-short four weeks, Legally Blonde The Musical is likely to sell out the Pantages through its final performance on September 6—and with good reason.  It’s one of the bounciest, brightest, funniest, and most tuneful Broadway musicals to come along in quite a good while—and who can object to that!

Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 14, 2009
Photos: Joan Marcus

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