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Legally Blonde
Musical Theatre Southwest

Also see Sarah's review of Port Twilight

Legally Blonde

Elle Woods (April Shute) has a problem. The blonde sorority girl just got dumped by her boyfriend Warner (Jonathan Gallegos) just as she was expecting a proposal. He's about to ship off to Harvard Law School, and he doesn't believe Elle is serious enough to accompany him. He wants a girl who can help him get ahead. Elle is an effervescent South California blonde who has a wardrobe that's entirely pink.

But Warner underestimates Elle. She may have just nabbed a degree in merchandising, but she's sparky smart. She decides to follow him to Harvard and win him back. He clearly doesn't deserve this resourceful and caring Valley Girl, but love is blind and Elle is determined. She fights out to get into Harvard Law School and succeeds. The story plays out the cultural conflicts that are inevitable when an uncompromisingly pink blonde from ditzy California insists on being taken seriously in Cambridge, Mass.

Legally Blonde the Musical is yet another in a long string of Broadway-style musicals that take their story from popular movies. The concept is working quite well, from Footloose to Lion King, from Cry Baby to Sister Act. Legally Blonde seems particularly well suited to the musical makeover. I found the musical superior to the movie, and I liked the movie. The musical is better at capturing and amplifying the emotions and themes of the story.

This production has two standout stars: April Shute as Elle Woods and Laura Nuzum as Elle's hairdresser and confident, Paulette Bonafonte. April Shute has quite a job cut out for her. She's in virtually every scene, sings on most songs, goes through a dozen or more costume changes, and invariably is compared to the incomparable Reese Witherspoon who played Elle in the 2001 hit movie. While April is wonderful throughout, she really nails the part with her facial expressions and body language. She has a gift for projecting emotion with her face and body. Any production of Legally Blonde the Musical will depend on a strong lead performance. So much hangs on Elle. Shute truly delivers.

Laura Nuzum is startlingly good as Paulette. Paulette becomes Elle's close friend and one-girl support system. Her performance is physically luscious. She steals nearly every scene. Her powerful voice is a show stopper. In a bit of casting genius, Nuzum's real-life husband Tim Nuzum is cast as both her boozy-belligerent ex and her budding romantic interest.

Another highlight of the musical is the trio of friends who make up a Greek chorus. They follow Elle through her ups and downs, commenting on her travails along the way. The trio delivers girl-group pizzazz that is a brilliant piece of borrowing from Little Shop of Horrors.

The rest of the ensemble is strong as well. Director Robb Anthony Sisneros, who is also the MTS president, has created a terrifically well-balanced production that is strong from beginning to end and deserves the standing ovation for the performance I witnessed. The singing (Lorrie Oliver) is fine, the choreography (Jonathan Ragsdale) is delightful, and the costumes are clever (Shannon Scheffler with costume design and Jacie Coryell as wardrobe mistress). Set designer James Apodoca and stage manager Brian Clifton have done a great job with the space.

The performance takes place at the new Black Box Performance Space. This is the opening production for the reconstructed space which burned down nearly two years ago, destroying a warehouse full of costumes and props going back decades. While a colorful musical usually works better on a conventional stage—with the stage's superior acoustics—Musical Theatre Southwest makes the black box work. The vocals and accompaniment music are a bit muddy at times because of the boxy acoustics, but the sheer exuberance of the performances saves the day from this minor-but-persistent flaw.

Legally Blonde the Musical, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, book by Heather Hatch, and directed by Robb Anthony Sisneros, is playing at the Musical Theatre Southwest's Black Box Performance Space at 6320-B Domingo Road NE through May 6. Performances are Fridays and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sundays at 4 pm. General admission is $22. Senior and student tickets are $18. For reservations, call 505-265-9119. For more information see the Musical Theatre Southwest website, http://www.musicaltheatresw.com.

--Rob Spiegel



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