3-D Theatricals gets everything right in its end-of-season staging of Legally Blonde The Musical. With director David F.M. Vaughn assuredly in charge, this is the very best production I’ve seen of one of Broadway’s best-crafted hits of the past ten years.
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 (Stephanie Wall) 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 (Matthew Benedict), who’s dumped her in favor of Vivienne Kensington (Carly Nykanen), 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 adds 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 (choreographer extraordinaire Linda Love Simmons putting her own take on each of them), 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.
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 (Emma Degerstedt)—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;
•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).
In Elle Woods, the effervescent Wall gets the part she was born to play, and “Omigod You Guys” does she play the smart blonde beauty to perfection, charming the audience from the get-go and earning our hearts the deeper she digs into the role. And wow can this blonde sing!
Broadway vet Matt Bauer makes intelligence sexy as upper class law student and Elle-mentor Emmett, and never more so than when singing in his crystal-clear tenor, making you believe that Emmett and Elle are a match made in legal heaven.
Alley is one of the best street-smart-but-self-esteem-challenged Paulettes ever, making the gorgeous ballad “Ireland” every bit the showstopper it’s meant to be—and showing off some nifty Riverdance footwork in a terrific Love-choreographed and ensemble-performed “dream ballet.” As for Cameron Sczempka as the UPS guy who turns Paulette’s eye, has there been a hunkier or more charismatic Kyle, or one who could do higher kicks? (Sczempka doubles amusingly as Paulette’s sleazy ex Dewey.)
Benedict is just right as Warner, the handsome rat Elle follows to Harvard, singing the role with rich, resonant pipes. The always marvelous Christopher Carothers goes change-of-pace smarmy as Harvard prof Callahan, whose smooth-as-silk “Blood In The Water” will resonate with anyone who’s ever told a lawyer joke. Nykanen is once again splendid as Elle’s snooty rival for Warner’s love, whose character arc makes her far more than just a stuck-up villainess.
Degerstedt, a two-time Scenie-winner as Elle herself, couldn’t be more sensational as Brooke, the show’s highest-energy featured role, and one that shows off Degerstedt’s Broadway-caliber dance prowess and fitness star athleticism. (Keep your eye out for Degerstedt in brunette mode in Act One. She’s sensational there too!)
As for Elle’s three best sorority sister chums Serena, Margot, and Pilar, who follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus (every “tragedy” deserving one), Micaela Martinez, Jamison Lingle, and Tory Trowbridge prove themselves three of our best, loveliest, and most vivacious triple-threats.
Kristen Pickrell is another standout as Elle’s women’s-libber (i.e. lesbian?) classmate Enid, with Sydney Blair shining too as both Elle-chum Kate and raspy-voiced, illegally-permed Chutney.
Other supporting roles are winningly, incisively played by Brad Fitzgerald (Winthrop, Elle’s Dad), Melissa Glasgow (D.A. Joyce Riley), Amy Glinskas (Elle’s Mom, Saleswoman), Laleh Khorsandi (Whitney, Judge), dance captain Brian Steven Shaw (Grandmaster Chad), Drew R. Williams (Aaron), and Matthew Williams (Kiki).
As for Nick Adorno’s Nikos, what a pleasure it is to see the role played so perfectly “Gay Or European?” (and not obviously the former) and what a relief it is to see his “best friend” Carlos (Robert Ramirez) not turned into a flaming queen, and how absolutely fabulous it is to see their relationship treated as real and not a joke. (Huge kudos to both director and actors for this and an extra round of applause for Ramirez’s Act One Padamadon.)
You won’t find a more talented bunch of song-and-dance ensemble triple-threats than Adorno, Glasgow, Khorsandi, Madison Mitchell, Ramirez, Jake Saenz, Shaw, Christian Villanueva, both Williams, and Stephanie Wolfe—the entire “chorus line” executing multiple tracks—and Love’s athletic choreography—to perfection.
Chihuahua Frankie deserves five stars (make that five barks) for his scene-stealing work as Bruiser Woods, though I couldn’t help wishing for a real, live Rufus instead of a travel crate.
Musical director John Glaudini conducts the Broadway-caliber pit orchestra, musicians provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective.
This Legally Blonde looks better than any I’ve seen before. John Patrick’s scenic design for the Citrus College Music Theatre Workshop has been spiffed up smashingly by prop coordinator Teresa Hanrahan. FCLO Music Theater’s costumes (designed by Carin Jacobs) are rented treats which Jean-Yves Tessier bathes in saturated hues in one of his most vibrant lighting designs. Kudos go too to Julie Ferrin for her sound design despite some initial difficulty hearing lyrics, as well as to wig designers Cliff & Kat Senior, costume coordinator Kate Bergh, wardrobe supervisor Yolanda Rowell, animal trainers William Berloni Theatrical Animals, Inc, and technical director Jene Roach.
Nicole Wessel is production stage manager and David Jordan Nestor assistant stage manager. Legally Blonde is produced by Daniel Dawson and co-produced by Gretchen Dawson and Jeanette Dawson.
T.J. Dawson is Executive Producer and Artistic Director.
I’ve seen some terrific Legally Blondes before, but 3-D’s outdoes them all. Following 9 To 5, Parade, Shrek The Musical, and Funny Girl, this may well be my very favorite musical theater season ever, and Legally Blonde ends it with fireworks and a bang.
Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
October 12, 2013
Photos: Isaac James Creative