Legally Blonde: The Musical had its southern California premiere last week at the fabled Pantages Theatre in LA. Despite the Pantages' equally-fabled acoustical problems — which rendered some lyrics unintelligible — the opening night performance cast a crowd-pleasing spell over the packed house.
Adapted from the 2001 film that made a star of Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde follows the efforts of Malibu-bred, UCLA sorority girl Elle Woods (played here by the winning Becky Gulsvig) to get into Harvard Law School and win back her ex-boyfriend. This cheerful, brightly-colored show had a successful run on Broadway in 2007, and had its popularity among young people sealed by an MTV telecast. The tour recently won several special Tony Awards for touring productions including Best Musical, beating Wicked and critical favorite Spring Awakening.
While its plot may seem feather-light, Legally Blonde: The Musical has intelligent things to say about women, ambition and personal empowerment. It probably helps that a woman, Heather Hach, wrote the show's book and another woman, Nell Benjamin, wrote its score, the latter with Laurence O'Keefe. The score is excellent, packed with tunes both appropriately perky ("Omigod You Guys," "What You Want" and "So Much Better" are but a few) and, on those rare occasions when called for, more meditative ("Chip on My Shoulder," "Find My Way" and the title song).
Jerry Mitchell's high-energy choreography is impressive — especially during the Act II opener, "Whipped Into Shape" — but his direction is even better. The pacing is brisk and there isn't a sluggish moment to be found. Though this is Mitchell's Broadway directorial debut, his sharp eye and sure hand ensure future directing assignments.
The touring cast is uniformly strong. In addition to Gulsvig, standout performances are given by Natalie Joy Johnson as the unfortunate-in-love beautician, Paulette (memorably played by Jennifer Coolidge in the film); D.B. Bonds as Emmett; Ken Land as the smarmy Professor Callahan; and Megan Lewis as Elle's bitchy rival, Vivienne. And one mustn't neglect to mention the cute and talented canines Frankie and Nellie, who play Bruiser and Rufus, respectively.
There are gay and lesbian characters and camp moments galore to please GLBT theatregoers. Aside from Wicked, no other recent musical offers as much sheer joy and entertainment as Legally Blonde: The Musical. It is running at the Pantages through September 6, then transfers to the Orange County Performing Arts Center September 8-20.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.