When rights to a hit Broadway musical get released to regional theaters, it often takes longer than you’d expect for a show to reach L.A. Take the case of Legally Blonde. Though its rights were made available way back in September of 2011, it had until recently made its way only as close as Vista (94 miles away), with Thousand Oaks not scheduled to get it till this coming July, and Fullerton (a “mere” 26 miles away) not till October of 2013. And who knows when it will actually reach L.A. County?

All the more reason to zip on up to relatively nearby Simi Valley (only half an hour from downtown L.A.) where right this very minute Elle Woods is discovering the joys of higher education in Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi’s terrific (if not quite perfect) staging of the 2007 Broadway adaptation of the 2001 movie smash, solidly directed by David Daniels.

533115_4893655422422_336020108_n 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 (Leigh Golden) 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 (Quentin Garzón), who’s dumped her in favor of Vivienne Kensington (Kristina Miller), 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, and performances that honor the movie originals without carbon copying them.

11347_4893657822482_1633128382_n 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 pocket-sized pet pooch 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 storyline 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.

313848_4893679023012_1636698831_n Here are some of Legally Blonde’s greatest musical moments, inventively choreographed by Simi Valley whiz Becky Castells to fit the dance talents of her enthusiastic young cast:

•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 members of 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,” an aerobics class taught by fitness guru-turned-accused murderess Brooke Wyndham (Ren Durant)—begun in her exercise studio, continued behind prison walls, and even extended into her defense team’s law office, featuring some of the jump-ropingest choreography ever
•Bend And Snap, an R&B celebration of the 99% effective man-catching move taught by Elle to best buddy/hairstylist Paulette (Michele McRae)
•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!”

295501_4893656902459_1857693594_n No production of Legally Blonde can possibly succeed without just the right leading lady to bring Elle to effervescent life, and here ARTS has struck gold(en) in Leigh Golden, who moves from her Scenie-winning supporting turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to an equally stellar lead performance as the blonde who took Harvard University Law School by storm. Vocally and comedically, Golden aces every Elle Woods moment with a quirky, bubbly charm and oodles of likeability.

35479_4893741904584_2138319507_n Among supporting players, Joshua Ziel returns to L.A. theater in a winning turn as straight-arrow upper class law student slash sensitive Elle-mentor Emmett, Miller makes Elle’s snooty, uptight rival for Warner’s love far more than just a stuck-up villainess, and Durant does sizzling work in the show’s highest-energy featured role (in addition to her cameo as UCLA co-ed Shandi). Garzón has great fun as the shallow, self-absorbed rat Elle follows to Harvard, John Dantona is deliciously smarmy as sleazebag Harvard Professor Callahan, whose “Blood In The Water” could easily be adopted as the American Bar Association anthem, and a sensational McRae is a big-voiced delight as brash, street-smart (but self-esteem-challenged) Paulette.

I especially liked Katie Galuska, Joanna Bert, and Nina Jiries as the trio of Elle’s three best sorority sister chums Margot, Serena, and Pilar, who follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus—every “tragedy” deserving one.

Elle’s fellow first year Harvard law students Aaron, Enid, and Padamadan are brought to colorful life by Garret Riley, Julia Williams, and Rehyan Rivera, with Riley doubling as Pforzheimer and Bailiff and Rivera as the unmistakably gay (or is he merely European?) Nikos. Adult tracks are entertainingly performed by Suzanne Mayes and John David Wallis as Elle’s parents and assorted cameos.

574817_4893738824507_654759302_n Finally, a standout Zach Kaufer makes the very most of a trifecta of roles—as the raptastic Grandmaster Chad, as Paulette’s trailer-trashy ex-boyfriend Dewey, and most notably as UPS guy Kyle, whose cocky walk and sexy man-gams would turn any hair stylist’s (or colorist’s) head.

Completing the overall topnotch ensemble are Charles Martinez (Kiki The Colorist), Amy Moffatt (Leilani), Jodie Morse (Gaelen, D.A. Joyce Riley), Luis Ramirez (Carlos), Takiyah Rue (Judge, Store Manager), Lindsey Waguespack (Cece), Cara Williams (Christine), and Mary Zastrow (Kate, Chutney, Ireland CD Voice), with Delta Nu snaps to those who play Elle’s sorors with oodles of charm and panache.

Last but not least are a pair of canine cameo players (Amora Tisler as Bruiser and Lucy Hosking as Rufus), certain to inspire audience oohs and aahs as coached by Robert Weatherwax (Lowell).

On a less positive note, I do wish every gay character weren’t rendered a femmy stereotype, particularly in a courtroom scene which as played here provokes laughter at The Gays rather than in delight at their Will Truman/Jack McFarland blend of diversity and fabulousness. (On the other hand, kudos to director and actors for not shying away from a very sweet boy-boy kiss!)

Daniel Mahler’s colorful East Coast-West Coast costumes are the production’s top design element, and there are dozens upon dozens of them. Production designers Sean P. Harrington and assistant Maddy Harrington get a B+ for sets that mostly avoid the barebones look that can be the hallmark of modestly budgeted big-stage productions. Courtney Johnson’s lighting design is a winner too, despite what appeared to be a few small first-scene glitches. Kevin Kahm’s sound design went off without a hitch, allowing the audience to hear vocals over live instrumentals. In fact, the production’s only major drawback is an orchestra that seems challenged by Legally Blonde’s particularly dense, complex score. Musical director Matthew Park scores high marks for vocal performances, though.  It should be noted that at times cast members seemed unable to hear their instrumental backup.

Program credit goes also to stage managers Megan Tisler and Melissa Miller, light board operator Welles Miller, spot operator Melissa Shilkoff, and prop mistress Brenda Miller.

Though not quite as perfect as previously reviewed Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi musicals Avenue Q and Spring Awakening, Legally Blonde once again proves that ARTS Artistic Director Jan Glasband and her team of regulars know how to put on first-rate musical theater without the bigger bucks and Equity performers that other theater companies might take for granted.

Briefly put, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center patrons are in for one “swElle” time in the hands of Elle.

Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
March 10, 2013

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