Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
In a very short amount of time, Legally Blonde has become one of the most produced musicals in Greater Cincinnati. There have been several high school productions, a number of community theater productions, and a mounting by Northern Kentucky University, in addition to a stop by the national tour. A production of the newly released Legally Blonde Jr. is also planned for this spring by one of the local youth theater groups. Even with all of these opportunities for audiences to see the show, it isn't a surprise that the critically acclaimed University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) Musical Theater Program is likewise presenting the show. Legally Blonde has a young, hip feel to it, features a score by a composer who is growing in popularity, and is a good fit for CCM's substantial talent pool. Featuring strong performances, fun choreography, and a superb set design, this mounting is a true crowd pleaser.
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. 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) may not always be politically correct, the show never takes itself too seriously and includes enough self-mockery and deconstruction of stereotypes to be acceptable. It 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, Heathers) and Nell Benjamin (Sarah, Plain and Tall) doesn't register as overly distinguished through only a single viewing of the show, but repeated exposure (via multiple productions, the broadcast by MTV of the original Broadway cast a few years back, or hearing the cast recording) demonstrates tuneful and often witty songs with strong pop-influenced melodies and smart and funny word-play in its lyrics. Song highlights include the exuberant "What You Want," the bouncy "Positive," and the lovely and plaintive title number, which includes a chill-producing harmony portion.
Director/choreographer Diane Lala provides a number of nice directorial touches, as well as smooth scene transitions, an appropriately silly yet sympathetic tone, and apt character personifications. However, she also misses a few opportunities to cue action off of the lyrics which would enhance the production further. Ms. Lala infuses the piece with lots of lively and suitable dancing which benefits the production. Assistant musical director Danny White led the 17-piece orchestra at the performance attended.
The two leading roles have been double-cast, the performers being reviewed here are those from the first Saturday matinee. As Elle, Lawson Young is appropriately perky and empathetic, displays a strong character arc from spoiled princess to determined independent woman, and supplies powerhouse singing throughout. She also nails much of the excellent comedy in the show. Chris Collins-Pisano does a great job in acting the role of Emmett, but is inconsistent vocally, sometimes showing off exceptional singing and other times seeming unsteady note-wise. Madeline Lynch (Paulette) is vocally excellent and endearing as Elle's hairdresser friend, but doesn't come across quite down-trodden enough for the role. The supporting performers all do a solid job, with especially noteworthy turns by Ben Biggers (a well-sung and acted Warner), Emily Trumble (a staunch Viviennewith excellent belting), and Samantha Pollino (vibrant and sharp dancing as Serena). Though the ensemble does well in executing the non-stop choreography and vocal support in general, there are a few moments where they seem less polished than usual for a CCM student cast.
This production is quite notable due to its outstanding scenic design by Joe Leonard. It features a Barbie Dream Townhouse style sorority house which turns and splits to also provide the setting for Harvard and the courtroom. Additionally, this inventive and highly functional design incorporates multiple set pieces dropped from the flies, including a bridge/arch which is adaptable by inserting different modular pieces underneath it. The lighting by Wes Calkin is first-rate, and the costumes by Reba Senske are generally attractive and well-suited to the characters.
Legally Blonde the Musical isn't a perfect show, or groundbreaking in any way. However, it's a fun, fast-paced, entertaining, and well-crafted musical with heart, energy, and a bouncy and humorous score. Legally Blonde continues at CCM through November 2, 2014. For more information visit www.ccm.uc.edu.
-- Scott Cain