Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of The Human Comedy
This Broadway season in New York, most of the "new" musicals use recycled songs and lack a fully developed story or characters. As a result, a show like Legally Blonde, The Musical, which played on Broadway in 2007 and 2008, seems like a major accomplishment in comparison. Though not perfect, this fun and fast-paced show possesses heart, energy, a bouncy and melodic score, and theatrical flair to spare. The national tour currently playing at the Aronoff Center boasts a very talented cast including a Tony Award winner.
Based on the 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon and the preceding novel by Amanda Brown, Legally Blonde tells the tale of spoiled-rich sorority gal Elle Woods who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School to win back his affections. In the meanwhile, she discovers a lot about herself and slowly becomes a worthy lawyer-in-training despite her dumb blonde outer demeanor.
The book for the musical by Heather Hatch includes the requisite balance of youth-targeted humor (much of which works exceedingly well), emotional pull, romantic entanglements and modern day conflict. Though some of the depictions of various groups (sorority sisters, homosexuals, lawyers) aren't politically correct at times, the show never takes itself too seriously and includes enough self-mockery and deconstruction of stereotypes to be acceptable. The show moves at a rapid pace and covers a lot of material while still telling the story clearly.
The score by Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy) and Nell Benjamin doesn't register as overly distinguished from only a single viewing of the show (which is all that most audience members will ever have), but repeated exposure (via multiple visits, an MTV broadcast, or hearing the CD) demonstrates tuneful and often witty songs filled with strong pop-influenced melodies and smart wordplay. Song highlights include the exuberant "What You Want," the bouncy "Positive," "Take It Like A Man" (where Elle expresses her appreciation to friend Emmett for his support) and the lovely and plaintive title number.
Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell deserves both praise and criticism for his work on Legally Blonde. The smooth scene transitions, appropriately silly yet sympathetic tone, aptly perky character personifications, and wise use of theatrical gimmicks all aid the production. However, the show feels too "manufactured" at times, and lacks an overall cohesiveness. In addition, this doesn't represent Mr. Mitchell's best work as a choreographer. Though suitable for the piece, his hip-hop style dances rely too much on posing, hand motions and raw athleticism, and rarely feel organic to the piece.
As Elle, Becky Gulsvig, who understudied the role on Broadway, is vocally strong with an occasional Kristin Chenoweth kewpie doll inflection to her voice. It is in her acting that she really impresses. She aptly conveys the humor and strength of the character, and takes Elle on an emotional journey during the show. D.B. Bonds displays excellent comic timing and delivery, and sings well as Emmett. Natalie Joy Johnson (who played a smaller and much different role in the Broadway production) is excellent and endearing as the very funny hairdresser friend Paulette, and gets to show off her strong singing voice as well. Michael Rupert, who won a Tony Award for a revival of Sweet Charity and garnered nominations for Falsettos and The Happy Time, supplies rich vocals, well-honed stage presence and timing, and an aptly sharp characterization as the vicious Professor Callahan. Providing solid performances in support are Jeff McLean (Warner), Megan Lewis (Vivienne), Colleen Sexton (Brooke), Lucia Spina (Enid), Rhiannon Hansen (Margot), Candice Marie Woods (Pilar) and Tiffany Engen (Serena). The entire ensemble does well in executing the non-stop choreography and vocal support.
David Rockwell's set is slightly scaled down from the Broadway version, but remains attractive, varied and fun. The lighting by Kenneth Posner and Paul Miller is excellent, with many nice touches throughout. Costumes by Gregg Barnes are young, hip and stylish.
Legally Blonde, The Musical has obvious flaws, and is in no way groundbreaking. However, the show is fun, entertaining, humorous and solidly crafted. It deserved more recognition than it received in New York, and has had a successful national tour so far by all accounts, in large part due to its hard working and skilled cast. Legally Blonde continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through May 23, 2010. For tickets, call 513-621-2787.-- Scott Cain