Cabrillo Music Theatre now treats Ventura County residents (and SoCal musical theater lovers farther afield) to a sensational staging of Legally Blonde, 2005’s textbook example of how to turn a hit celluloid romcom into a nigh-on-perfect musical comedy, particularly as directed at Cabrillo with assurance and flair by Legally Blonde Broadway vet Tiffany Engen.

Book writer Heather Hach clearly knows not to fool with success, sticking closely to Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s 2001 film adaptation of Amanda Brown’s novel, which has jilted UCLA Fashion Merchandising grad Elle (Emma Degerstedt taking over for Reese Witherspoon on the Cabrillo stage) 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 (JD Driskill), who’s dumped her in favor of Vivienne Kensington (Natalie Storrs), 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.

Elle & the Greek Chorus 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 (Jerry Mitchell’s Tony-nominated choreography recreated here with precision and panache by Engen and associate choreographer Brooke Engen), and performances that honor the movie originals without carbon copying them.

Elle goes to Harvard 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 the entire UCLA Marching Band (or a close facsimile thereof);
•“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 (Jaycie Doton)—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 (Lowe Taylor);
•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!”

Warner, Elle & Emmett All of the above quotes come out of the mouth of Elle, played here by the stunning Degerstedt, every bit as blondly gorgeous as she was last summer at Moonlight Stages but even better this time round. As sensational a singer and dancer as ever, Degerstedt gives us an Elle without a hint of caricature, the authenticity she brings to the role making us believe in this blonde’s smarts, and love her even more. (Can you say Broadway Bound?)

Elle & Paulette Cabrillo Music Theatre has surrounded Degerstedt with an all-around fabulous supporting cast, beginning with SoCal musical theater treasure Taylor as street-smart but self-esteem-challenged Paulette. Not only does Taylor bring depth (and working girl sass) to the role, her rendition of the gorgeous ballad “Ireland” is as good as it gets.

Broadway vet Matt Bauer does charmingly winning work as upper class law student and Elle-mentor Emmett, sings in a crystal-clear tenor, and has great chemistry with Degerstedt.

Elle & Warner Driskill transitions niftily from Rent’s edgy Roger to Legally Blonde’s slimy Warner, the GQ model-handsome rat Elle follows to Harvard, bringing his own razor-sharp vocals to the role. John D. LeMay is terrifically smarmy as Harvard prof Callahan, whose smooth-as-silk “Blood In The Water” will resonate with anyone who’s ever told a lawyer joke. Storrs once again proves herself a musical theater standout, this time as Vivienne, Elle’s snooty rival for Warner’s love, whose character arc makes her far more than just a stuck-up villainess. Making a particularly strong impression too is sensational Cabrillo newcomer Jaycie Dotin as Brooke, the show’s highest-energy featured role, and one performed here with Olympic athleticism and plenty of flair. The always marvelous Sheila Karls is a hoot as Elle’s women’s-libber (i.e. lesbian?) classmate Enid.

Elle, Serena, Margot & Pilar As for Elle’s three best sorority sister chums Serena, Margot, and Pilar (Caitlyn Calfas, Veronica Dunne, and Kimberly Ann Moore) who follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus (every “tragedy” deserving one), the dynamic trio provide killer backup and comedic pizzazz.

Among featured players, Ben Bowen deserves equal billing alongside the above-mentioned eleven for his charismatic turn as hunky UPS guy Kyle (and Paulette’s sleazy ex Dewey.) Add to that Ryan Braun (Aaron Schultz), Rachel Burkert (Whitney, Delta Nu), Nathanial Flatt (Nikos, Padamon), Jay Gamboa (Bailiff), Raquel Jeté (Judge, Delta Nu), Ashley Jones (Kate, Chutney), Kurt Kemper (Kiki), Natalie MacDonald (Leilani, Stenographer, Cat Lady, Delta Nu), Sabrina Olivieri (D.A. Joyce, Delta Nu), Jayson Puls (DJ Chad), Tracy Ray Reynolds (Elle’s Mom), Kelly Roberts (Elle’s Dad, Winthrop), Alex Sanchez (D.A. Jack), and Lamont Whitaker (Carlos), and you’ve got a first-rate ensemble doing bang-up triple-threat work each and every one.

Frankie deserves five stars (make that five barks) for his scene-stealing work as Bruiser Woods. On a less positive note, however, a travel crate is no substitute for a real, live Rufus, nor was this reviewer pleased to see same-sex couple Nikos and Carlos turned into a joke rather than the celebration of gay fabulousness they’ve been in a couple of previously reviewed Legally Blondes.

Musical director extraordinaire Darryl Archibald conducts the Broadway-caliber Cabrillo Music Theatre Orchestra. (Kevin Roland is assistant musical director.)

BEND & SNAP This Legally Blonde looks great. John Patrick’s scenic design for the Citrus College Music Theatre Workshop and FCLO Music Theater’s costumes (designed by Carin Jacobs) are rented treats which Christina L. Munich bathes in saturated hues in one of her best lighting designs to date. Kudos go too to Jonathan Burke for his expert sound design, as well as to hair and makeup designer Cassie Russek, wardrobe supervisor, animal trainer William Berloni, technical director Gary Wissmann, and crew captain Char Brister.

Allie Roy is production stage manager and Kirsten D’Agostaro Shook assistant stage manager.

In a production that easily matches the First National Tour in all-around excellence, this latest Legally Blonde makes it abundantly clear that for musical theater at its Broadway best, there’s no Ventura County match for Cabrillo Music Theatre.

Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
July 19, 2013
Photos: Ed Krieger

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