Nothing makes this musical theater lover happier than when a recent Broadway favorite makes its way to regional productions on our local stages. Such is the case with 2007’s Legally Blonde, now getting its Southern California Regional Premiere at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre, and if 90 or so miles seems a bit of a schlep to catch SoCal’s very first from-the-ground-up Legally Blonde, then you’re far less of a musical theater (and Elle Woods) aficionado than this reviewer. The Broadway stage adaptation of the 2001 movie smash is a textbook example of how to turn a hit celluloid romcom into a nigh-on-perfect musical comedy, and one that the folks down at Moonlight have staged about as terrifically as imaginable.

 Book writer Heather Hach clearly knows not to fool with success, sticking closely to Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s film adaptation of Amanda Brown’s novel, which has jilted UCLA Fashion Merchandising grad Elle (Emma Degerstedt) acing her LSATs, winning over the Harvard University Admissions board, and entering Harvard Law School in a bid to win back the heart of ex-boyfriend and future political hopeful Warner Huntington III (Anthony Carillo), who’s dumped her in favor of Vivienne Kensington (Jessica Bernard), 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 (choreographed at Moonlight by the ever inventive John Vaughan), buoyant direction (also by Vaughan), and performances that honor the movie originals without carbon copying them.

 As much as 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 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 (Jennifer Simpson)—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 (Julie Cardia)
•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 Vivienne. 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 stunning UCLA junior Degerstedt, paying tribute to the movie’s Reese Witherspoon while making the blonde very much her own, imbuing Elle with equal parts charm, beauty, and smarts. (L.A. theater fans will recognize Degerstedt from her mean teen role as Kendra in Jason Robert Brown’s 13, all grown up now and more dazzlingly triple-threaty than ever.)

 The silver-throated Carillo follows last year’s oh-so romantic Fabrizio in CLOSBC’s The Light In The Piazza with the equally handsome (albeit considerably less sympathetic) Warner, the GQ model-handsome rat Elle follows to Harvard.  As upper class law student and Elle-mentor Emmett, San Diego’s own Brandon Joel Maier follows his brilliant turn as Leo Frank in Brown’s Parade with charismatic work here in Young Tom Hanksian mode. Cardia is a ball of Jersey Girl fire as street-smart but self-esteem-challenged Paulette, a role she makes very much her sizzling own, and one that gives her the gorgeous ballad “Ireland” to sing to the rafters (if there were rafters to sing to at Moonlight). A terrific Cris O’Bryon epitomizes smarmy as Professor Callahan, whose silkily sung “Blood In The Water” will resonate with anyone who’s ever told a lawyer joke. Bernard does her accustomed splendid work as Vivienne, Elle’s snooty rival for Warner’s love, whose character arc makes her far more than just a stuck-up villainess. Simpson takes Brooke, the show’s highest-energy featured role, and performs it to particularly dynamic effect. Kim Zolozabal, last year’s ever so loveable Tracy Turnblad, returns to the Moonlight Stage in fine and feisty mode as Elle’s women’s-libber (but absolutely not lesbian!) classmate Enid.

 In one of Legally Blonde The Musical’s cleverest conceits, Elle’s three best sorority sister chums Serena, Margot, and Pilar (the stellar trio of Alexis Henderson, Stephanie Wolfe, and Tiana Okoye) follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus, every “tragedy” deserving one, and provide killer backup to many of Elle’s songs.

Also featured in Moonlight’s standout cast are Marius Beltran (Sundeep Padamadan, Carlos), Cassie Bowerman (Cece, D.A. Joyce Riley, Deborah Fauerbach (Salesgirl, Cashier, Judge), Johnny Fletcher (Grandmaster Chad, Dewey, Kyle), Ted Leib (Dad, Winthrop, Reporter), Danielle Levas (Leilani), Michael Marchak (Aaron), Kevin McDonald, Marlene Montes (Manager, Mom, Whitney), Katie Palmer, Dylan Pass (Nikos), Jayson Puls, and Matthew Thurmond. Canine roles are adeptly filled by Ness as Bruiser and Ali as Rufus.

Among the above ensemble tracks, particularly applause-worthy work is done by Fletcher, who not only gets to show off his rapper creds as Chad, but also displays first-rate comedic chops as both of Paulette’s boyfriends, the trailer-trashy Dewey and the big-biceped Kyle, arguably the hunkiest UPS man ever to grace a musical theater stage. Special mention is also due Pass and Beltran for playing flamboyantly gay parts with affection and panache and not a hint of the cringe-worthy.

Like all Moonlight Stage productions, Legally Blonde features a Broadway-caliber pit orchestra, which musical director Dr. Terry O’Donnell conducts to perfection.

Sets by Chinchilla Theatrical Scenic LLC do their job effectively, if not dazzlingly, and have been lit with customary flair by Christina L. Munich. Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone have coordinated the bevy of colorful costumes provided by Theatre Company, Upland, CA and designed by Dani Everts. Thumbs up too to Peter Hashagen’s sound design and Suzanne Asebroek’s properties. Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Jessica Standifer assistant stage manager.

Legally Blonde opens Moonlight Stage Productions 2012 Summer Of Shows under the stars with snap, crackle, and pop, making it one of the season’s most infectiously enjoyable musical treats, and one well worth a drive down to picturesque Vista.

Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
July 1, 2012
Photos: Ken Jacques

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