May 15, 2009

With spectacle and song, Legally Blonde: The Musical, like, totally rests its case

This week, Chicago’s very own Great White Way will become the Great “Blonde” Way with the debut of Legally Blonde: The Musical, a lively production that reminds us of the power of blondes, the “bend and snap,” and believing in yourself.

After a two-year run on Broadway, the Tony-nominated show embarked on a national tour, bringing the blonde ambition of Elle Woods to cities around the country. Based on the popular film starring Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde is the story of a sorority-girl-turned-Harvard-Law-student in search of love. Played by Becky Gulsvig, Elle may seem like a typical blonde from Malibu, but her drive, optimism, and wit show that there is more to her than golden tresses and brightly colored outfits. Gulsvig is charming and likable, providing a lead character that defies the stereotypes of gorgeous girls from L.A. Her voice is distinctive and fun, not annoying or overpowering. This means that at times she can get lost in the big song-and-dance numbers, but this allows for other characters to shine.

Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell has molded the plot of the film into an extravaganza worthy of its Broadway stage. The beginning number “Omigod You Guys” shows that big musical numbers and Elle’s ditzy persona will carry the show. Mitchell has crafted dance numbers that are more contemporary dance-off than classical tap. The performers have a clear athleticism that allows them to dance nonstop but still keep everything in check. Shirtless guys, midriff-bearing girls, short skirts, and tight shirts prove that this show is equally about being in shape as it is about holding a tune.

Legally Blonde has a dazzling set that works well with the big performances. Bright lights, props, and numerous backdrops move quickly to keep the audience’s attention, and a brightly colored frame surrounds the stage and sets the mood for many of the scenes. This sets the backdrop for some truly magical moments when the entire cast is on stage.

Comedy is another strong point. Elle’s partner-in-crime, Paulette (Natalie Joy Johnson) the manicurist, is absolutely hilarious. Everything from a New Jersey accent to tight blue spandex makes her the perfect figure for comedic relief. Johnson really gets laughs when she attempts to perform the seductive “bend and snap” and when the delivery man offers her a strategically placed package. One of the funniest numbers in the show is also one of the best performed. “There! Right There” is a courtroom scene where Elle tries to convince her defense team that the man who claims that he had an affair with the defendant is actually gay. What ensues is a hilarious number where the cast attempts to figure out whether he is gay or European. The dancing, singing, comedic quips, and dazzling set design all culminate to give a memorable performance.

While much of the musical’s plot adheres to the film, some alterations take away from the important message of the story. In the film, Elle is driven by her own ambition and desire to be a successful lawyer, but here her helpful law school friend, Emmett, seems to loom over her shoulder far too much. His constant encouragement (reinforced by some overly sentimental songs about ambition) doesn’t work with its take-home message of believing in yourself and never judging a book by its cover. What made the movie so great was that Elle fit the stereotype of a dumb blonde, but throughout the film she proved to be a smart girl that accomplished her goals all by herself, in spite of any negativity she received from other people. It’s sometimes difficult to see that in this production sometimes.

Legally Blonde: The Musical has all the talent necessary for a great show, but in the transition to stage, the sparkle of the basic story is lost. Even with great singing and dancing, audience members are still left wanting the story of the independent, pink-obsessed blonde who graduated at the top of her class at Harvard, won a high profile murder trial, mastered the “bend and snap,” and did it all without the help of any man.