Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
That heroine, the titular blonde, is Elle Woods: Malibu fashionista, Delta Nu sorority president and fashion marketing major with a 4.0 GPAclearly smart, but with a focus that was never much broader than her walk-in closet. It is senior year at UCLA and Elle has her life happily mapped out, with her impending engagement to boyfriend Warner Huntington III, well-tailored and headed to Harvard Law School. That is, until Warner dumps her. His aggressive ambition to make it to the Senate by the time he is 30 requires a more serious spouse at his sideas he puts it, "less of a Marilyn, more of a Jackie."
Elle is despondent until she conjures up the perfect solution: get into Harvard Law so Warner can see that she is indeed serious, putting their future together back on track. Easy peasy, right? Elle's regimen of test prep and her admission "essay" are, let's say, nontraditional, but she makes the cut. Warner is shocked to see her at Harvard on the first day of class as she feigns nonchalance, exclaiming "Oh my god, Warner. I totally forgot that you go here." Warner sorely underestimated Elle, but the crux of the story is how much she undervalued herself. Faced with snooty, self-important classmates and the wrath of powerful Professor Callahan, she remains true to herself and her valueswhich turn out to have more depth than appeared at first blushand learns that what she really wants is to be the best possible Elle Woods. Along the way she gets help from gawky law school teaching assistant Emmett, kindred spirit hair stylist Paulette, and a trio of sorority sisters who appear in her mind as a Greek chorus.
The novel Legally Blonde and its movie version both appeared in 2001. Even then, the theme of a young woman in a society that judges her by male chauvinist criteria, who discovers her true worth and proves the old adage "you can't judge a book by its cover," was familiar ground. And yet, seventeen years later, continued discrimination in hiring and employment, and harassment of women in the workplace keep the show sadly relevant. One scene in particular aptly illustrates the #metoo movement. Granted, Legally Blonde may have its sights set more on entertainment than social activism, and its perspective runs both ways, with Elle tutoring Paulette on the "bend and snap" move to draw the attention of a hunky UPS delivery man. Still, the show makes an overall positive statement that a woman can be strong, independent and successful, without having to trade in her signature pink for navy blue.
Artistry continues its run of high quality musical theater that makes the best case for each show. Its last production, Follies, perfectly captured the dark, dreamlike state of times remembered doing battle against the present. With a full 180-degree turn, Legally Blonde's director Angela Timberman has mounted a highly animated production, paced as briskly as a Delta Nu field trip to the outlet mall, that hangs the show's message from the light and airy trellis of its narrative. Choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble gives the enthusiastic ensemble delightful dance routines that capture the irrepressible energy bursting out of Elle and her friends, as well as having fun in scenes that call for a marching band, an exercise studio, and Irish step-dancing. Artistry's resident music director, Anita Ruth, once again contributes immeasurably by providing great-sounding accompaniment with a synthesizer-heavy thirteen-piece orchestra.
The role of Elle Woods is played by Angela Steele (Janet Van De Graaff in The Drowsy Chaperone and Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray, both at Artistry), who commands attention with a full-throated, triple threat performance. Steele sings with heart and can raise her voice to a belt when called for, moves with grace, and portrays the roller coaster of emotions Elle Woods rides over the course of the show. She soars above a euphoric chorus of sorority sisters in the giddy opening "Omigod You Guys," makes a power statement in the first act closer "So Much Better," and delivers a touching introspective moment with the title song. I anticipate seeing more of Ms. Steele in leading roles on our stages. Benjamin Rubenstein, who plays Emmett, comes to Legally Blonde with less experience, but performs handsomely, giving his character the spine needed to stand up against the darker elements of Harvard Law School. Rubenstein and Steele have a warm chemistry together that grows organically through the course of the show, featured in "Chip on My Shoulder" and "Take It Like a Man."
The villain of the piece, Professor Callahan, is played by Paul R. Coate, an Artistry stalwart, who delivers his philosophy about the legal profession and profit with evil panache in "Blood in the Water." Mary Palazzolo is well suited to play the good-hearted, salt of the earth hair stylist Paulette Bonafonté, delightfully breaking into a reverie imagining the perfect life to be had in "Ireland." Alec Leonard is a suitably clueless heel as Warner, laying it on thick in "Serious," and Maggie Mae Sulentic is convincing as Vivienne Kensington, Elle's law school nemesis. Dorian Brooke, as exercise queen Brooke Wyndham, has just the right jaded and sassy air, and takes charge demonstrating how her devotees get "Whipped into Shape" while she is being brought up on murder charges.
Joel Sass' set uses a central playing space surrounded by columns out of an Ivy League campus, and uses descending frames and flats gracefully sliding on and off to seamlessly transition from a sorority house, to a fashion boutique, to a posh restaurant, to the Harvard Law campus, to Elle's apartment, to a gym, and to a courtroom. Ed Gleeman's witty costumes affectionately exaggerate the fashion savvy of the Delta Nus, and especially Elle, without ridicule. The sound design provides a balanced delivery that keeps voices clear and allows them to rise above the orchestra.
Legally Blonde is not an important musical, not a game changer or exemplar of the state of the art. When it opened on Broadway in 2007, it faced competition from three prestigious shows: the wrenching Spring Awakening, the jewel-like Grey Gardens, and the Disney magic filled Mary Poppins. All are excellent shows, with their own points of pride. Legally Blonde has the bragging rights for delivering the most pure fun of the shows in its class, and of many classes before and since. It is unabashedly funny, lively and contemporary, with a healthy balance of innocence and adult sensibility. Given the benefit of an Artistry staging, which means super performances, stylish and well executed dance, imaginative design and wonderful music led by Anita Ruth's baton, it's a show, like Elle Woods, with indefatigable spirit and enormous heart.
Legally Blonde the Musical, through August 19, 2018, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: Adults: $46.00; Age 62 and up: $41.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under): $15.00. $3.00 discount for adult and senior at Wednesday and Thursday performances. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Music and Lyrics: Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin; Book: Heather Hach, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the MGM motion picture; Director: Angela Timberman; Choreography: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Music Director: Anita Ruth; Set Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Sarah Salisbury; Wig Design: Benjamin Tremmel; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Topaz Cooks, Assistant Lighting Designer: Becky Raines.
Cast: David Beukema (Winthrop/Elle's Dad/Ensemble), Dorian Brooke (Brooke Wyndham), Michael Terrell Brown (Nikos, Ensemble), Elizabeth Cassidy (Delta Nu), Paul R. Coate (Professor Callahan), Deidre Cochran (Judge/Store Manager/Ensemble), Michael Conroy (Aaron Schultz/Ensemble), Sarah DeYong (Leilani/Ensemble), Caitlin Featherstone (Margot), Bryan Garcia (Padaman/Carlos/Ensemble), Zach Hays (Ensemble), Mari Holst (Serena), Alec Leonard (Warner Huntington III), Lars Nisswandt (Chad/Dewey /Kyle), Katie O'Halloran (Enid Hoops), Nicholas Michael Ohren (Ensemble), Mary Palazzolo (Paulette Bonafonté), Riley Parham (Ensemble), Antonia Perez (Delta Nu), Benjamin Rubenstein (Emmett Forrest), Abigail Rose Sharp[ (Kate/Chutney/Ensemble), Angela Steele (Elle Woods), Maggie Mae Sulentic (Vivienne Kensington), Emily Thorkildson (Elle's Mom/Ensemble), Brittany Marie Wilson (Pilar).