Becky Gulsvig is beyond perfection as Elle Woods, the impossibly sunny sorority sister whose life takes a nasty spill in the opening minutes. Based on the 2001 movie with Reese Witherspoon (based, itself, on the Amanda Brown novel), Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's score is never dull, alarming us again and again with a grievous right-wing wobble that always manages to work out to popular tastes in the end.
Put on your pink skirt, because this Elle Woods will have you crying "Omigod" right along with her by intermission, thanks to a high-energy, seldom off-stage role that seems written precisely for her. Her performance, and that of her Greek chorus and dancers, is so exuberant that if there were a painting of them all back stage, the cast on the canvas surely age eighty years during each performance. But somehow these girls (and their shirtless, muscled frat boy pals at UCLA) stay wildly young and (in their own way) tribal all the way through, no matter how many acrobatic sisterhood songs they must sing, and how many emotional car wrecks Elle Woods seems to attract. It's like the lost chapter in American Girl history, between Annie and "Sex and the City," when a doll-like girl with a dog and a cell phone in her purse could still get a comprehensive auto insurance policy.
The script by Heather Hach is replete with goofy, snarky little laughs, and manages to cut three or four characters from the 2001 moviethough some roles, like that of the UPS driver (Ven Daniel) are alarmingly padded, in a Greek comic sort of way. He's the answered prayer of Elle's on-stage stylist, the second female lead (the sublime Natalie Joy Johnson). D.B. Bonds, as the grad student who coaches Elle through Harvard Law, is great, along with Coleen Sexton as their defendant in an act two murder trial, who has that "life in a gym" look and voice, lithe and husky, world-weary and hot.
One of the great things about the production (directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell) is that all three of the story's villains seem perfectly rationalunlike, say, the heroine herself. Jeff McLain, as Elle's first boyfriend in the play, glows with self-absorption, and sings terrifically too; Megan Lewis (as the girl who supplants Elle in his heart) projects a subtle chill one can feel at the back of the house; and Ken Land as Professor Callahan slithers through his big song, "Blood in the Water," with oily confidence. One by one, Ms. Gulsvig turns the tables on each of them; and, needless to say, she proves a formidable opponent.
I was initially charmed by the handful of young children I saw in the audience, but later worried about some of the PG-13 song, dance and discussion in the script. In the final analysis, though, I suspect most of it went over their heads. Still, parents of kids from, say, eight to ten years old might be caught by surprise by the antics of modern college kids and the Jane Fonda-type workout diva on stage here.
Depictions of sorority sisters as mad for marriage, or gay men as indistinguishable from "Euro-trash" (or blondes as vacuous, or lawyers as double-dealing) may rub you the wrong way; but it all works out in the end: with self-mocking songs, and characters who energetically puncture any and all stereotypes.
Through June 7th, 2009 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street (just east of LaSalle). For more information call (312) 902-1400 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Dance Captains: Sarah Marie Jenkins, Spencer Howard