The Broadway/regional theater triple-threats of tomorrow are onstage today as Cal State Fullerton’s esteemed musical theater BFA program presents an absolutely terrific staging of Broadway’s multiple Tony-nominated Legally Blonde.
Tony-nominated book writer Heather Hach is smart enough 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 (Ellie Wyman) 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 (Ethan Daniel Corbett), who’s dumped her in favor of Vivienne Kensington (Kellianne Safarik), 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 (Tony-nominated 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.
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.
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 (Mallory Staley)—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 (Chelle Denton);
•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).
It’s a pleasure to see CSUF’s dynamic faculty duo—director Eve Himmelheber and choreographer William F. Lett—putting their own stamps on Legally Blonde, a bunch of all-around sparkling performances making this Legally Blonde well worth seeing, even by those who might have caught it on Broadway, on tour, or most recently at neighboring 3-D Theatricals.
An absolutely smashing Wyman nails the first of what are sure to be many starring roles, giving us an Elle Woods underneath whose sunny beauty shines considerable intelligence, making her transition from apprentice Playboy bunny to Harvard law whiz entirely credible. Add to the above Broadway-caliber vocals and you’ve got another CSUF star-in-the-making.
Leading man Leslie could hardly make for a more appealing upper class law student and Elle-mentor Emmett, and deserves special credit for vocalizing quite admirably despite laryngitis that would have sidelined a lesser performer.
Denton is a total delight as street-smart-but-self-esteem-challenged Paulette, whether singing the gorgeous ballad “Ireland” in her rich, resonant pipes or performing some delicious Riverdance footwork in Legally Blonde’s “dream ballet.”
Brian Whitehill is a hunk-and-a-half (and a real charmer) as Kyle, the UPS guy who turns Paulette’s eye; Corbett makes for a splendidly slick Warner, the handsome rat Elle follows to Harvard; and Jack Robert Riordan excels in a change-of-pace role as smarmy as Harvard prof Callahan, warbling a deliciously dastardly “Blood In The Water.”
Among the women, Safarik gives depth to Vivienne, Elle’s snooty rival for Warner’s love; a leggy, athletic Staley is a stunner as Brooke, the show’s highest-energy featured role; and Erica Beck, Emily Chelsea Goedken, and Stephanie Inglese take Elle’s three best sorority sister chums—Serena, Margot, and Pilar, who follow her to Harvard as her Greek Chorus (every “tragedy” deserving one)—and make each one a delightfully distinct creation.
The rest of Legally Blonde’s multitude of cameo players deliver impressive performances each and every one. They are (in alphabetical order) Elyssa Alexander (Manager, Saleswoman, Reporter), Lacey Beegun (Gaelen, Stenog), Elizabeth Campbell (Mom, Court, Student, Perfume 2), Rubén J. Carbajal (Carlos), Kristina Dizon (Whitney, Delta Nu, Cashier), Matthew Dunn (Violinist, B&S Guy), Dylan David Ferris (B&S Guy, Clothier), Sarah Garcia (Kate, Bookish Client), Taylor May Hartsfield (Enid Hoopes, Delta Nu), Bren Thor Johnson (Nikos Argitakos), Kirk Schuyler Lawson (Aaron), Tyler Lemire (Pforzheimer, Dewey, Clothier), Charles McCoy (Suneep Padamadan, Clothier), Spenser Micetich (Dad, Winthrop, Clothier), Anyssa Navarro (DA, Delta Nu, Student, Saleswoman), Alexis Chanel Ritchey (Leilani, Kiki, Chutney), Victoria Sasso (Judge, Delta Nu, Perfume I), Andrew Sattler (Grandmaster Chad, B&S Guy), and Mitchell Turner (Lowell, Guard, Bailiff).
Chihuahua Roo makes for an adorable Bruiser, and it’s a pleasure to see Rufus played by actual pooch Sydney rather than to be asked to imagine Paulette’s doggie in a carrying case. On a less positive note, this reviewer was disappointed to see Legally Blonde’s two gay characters once again depicted as a pair of stereotypical flamers, especially after the recent 3-D production which afforded the couple more subtle shadings (and a real, committed relationship).
Still, this is a minor quibble (and no reflection on the two marvelous actors in question) in a production as all-around sensational as this one.
Unlike several regional stagings previously reviewed here, CSUF’s Legally Blonde reveals fresh, from-the-ground-up designs. Faculty member Fred Kinney’s imaginative scenic design features modules that open up to reveal a number of the musical’s many locales. Student costume designer Christina Perez has come up with one colorful, imaginative outfit after another, and there are hundreds of them. Lighting by student Ilia Kemble and faculty member Debra Garcia Lockwood (doubling as production manager and stage management supervisor) is top-drawer pro quality and the same can be said about student Kyle Swafford’s sound design and student Chauna Goldberg’s hair and makeup designs, with a special tip of the hat to Legally Blonde’s many character-defining wigs.
Faculty musical director Mitchell Hanlon gets highest marks as well, conducting and playing keyboards in Legally Blonde’s stellar twelve-piece band.
About last year’s CSUF spring musical All Shook Up, I wrote, “Forget the word ‘student’ when you make theater plans … and simply head down to Orange County for the very best in musical theater at bargain prices.” The same holds true, and then some, for Cal State Fullerton’s fabulous production of Legally Blonde.
Little Theatre, California State University, Fullerton Department of Theatre & Dance, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.
April 13, 2014
Photos: Edwin Lockwood