Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Legally Blonde
Stages St. Louis

Michelle Landon
There are "standing 'o's," and then there are "standing goes," where everyone just gets up to beat the crowd, while they're still clapping and heading out to the parking lot. You see the latter a lot at the end of shows in the gigantic Municipal Opera here in town.

But with this Legally Blonde, in a 400-seat theatre, it seems more like the audience is rising to applaud, because everyone up on stage just worked so hard to keep a lackluster story upright and moving forward.

You certainly won't walk out humming the tunes. But the sorority sisters' "Omigod You Guys" number did get lodged in my brain, to my regret, the next morning. Otherwise, I thought the "Bend and Snap" number and the courtroom counterpoint in "Gay or European" (actually titled "There! Right There!") are both a lot of fun, out of the roughly two and a half hour long evening.

It could have been shorter, but there's just a godawful amount of extremely high-energy dancing and prancing all the way through—you can almost set your watch by the regular explosions of dance-party madness coming about 15 minutes apart, whether you like it or not. As a result, act one is probably 15 minutes too long. On the other hand, if you took out the rah-rah dances, you might just as well stay home and rent the 2001 movie on Netflix instead. And how, exactly, is that good for the Theatuh?

Still, it's important to remember that even shows like Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! or Mame only have two or three real hit songs apiece. But Dolly got its (American) source material from the great Thornton Wilder. And Mame is from a bestselling novel, with the musical version coming down to us by way of the very successful dramatists Lawrence and Lee, before Mr. Herman ever took it on.

What I'm saying is that those shows were chosen from very solid source material, and designed by experts and road tested on the toughest live audiences for hundreds of performances on Broadway before the first note of music was ever assigned to any singer or dancer. Legally Blonde derives from the pleasant Reese Witherspoon movie, based on a "fish-out-of-water" novel by Amanda Brown. So I guess my question, regarding this 2007 musicalization (by Heather Hach, Laurence O'Keefe and Neil Benjamin), is simply: "why?"

The story's primary treatise is that a seemingly vacuous, Barbie-style coed with rich parents can still manage to achieve great things, if absolutely everything else just happens to line up in her favor. But I'm pretty sure that, as (barely) repackaged into the predominating Three Dimensions, Legally Blonde owes virtually all of its live-stage existence to 2003's Wicked, which teaches us that smart, pretty girls deserve an ample sense of self-worth, too.

And, yet, none of the implied greed and vanity at the heart of this property can diminish the contribution of Michelle Landon, who's unstoppable: she sings beautifully; dances to perfection; and gets all her intended laughs as Elle Woods, the heroine of the story, without ever seeming to break a sweat. She's on stage about 90% of the time, so special mention must be made of her great success in the role. It's just a shame that she and all the other singers and dancers have to do all the work of making the evening tolerable at all.

But everyone on stage certainly knows how to charm an audience, with Heather Jane Rolff as a sadder-but-wiser hairdresser (who is central to the "Bend and Snap" number, and sings a sweet comic song about her ideal man in "Ireland"), and also with Nicolette Hart as a fitness guru in a terrible legal jam. Both ladies are particular standouts in their supporting roles.

Ms. Hart, whose character stands accused of murder, is built up to legendary proportions in her introductory number, featuring an exhausting-to-watch workout routine in "Whipped Into Shape," before her big trial. (The whole show probably qualifies as a fitness video, by the way.) And, as the end slowly draws near, the murder trial is dragged out to three long scenes (if memory serves), ending in—Spoiler Alert: a guilty verdict for scare-hair ... along with the inevitable discovery of the main character's sense of "self worth" of course. The problem is, I'm just too nice to call the whole thing a celebration of personal fascism.

Nevertheless, director Michael Hamilton does a splendid job throughout, heightening the meager character relationships whenever possible. Or maybe I'm totally wrong and it's really just a thoroughly accurate portrayal of grotesquely self-absorbed rich kids who barely sustain any interpersonal relationships to begin with. (This would explain the importance of actor Ben Nordstrom's astonishingly genuine character, Emmett, who's from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks, and therefore knows the value of a good pal.)

Anyway, choreographer Rusty Mowery recreates all the overwhelming action of the dancers from the Broadway version, in exhaustive detail, in a myriad of exceedingly bouncy numbers. You'll burn 250 calories, minimum, just watching. I know I burned another 250 getting the heck out of there.

Through August 18, 2013, at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, on the south end of the Kirkwood Recreation Complex, 111 South Geyer Rd. For more information go to www.stagesstlouis.org or call (314) 821-2407.

Elle Woods: Michelle London*
Warner Huntington III: Brandon Davidson*
Vivienne Kensington: Shannon O'Boyle*
Emmett Forrest: Ben Nordstrom*
Professor Callahan: David Schmittou*
Paulette: Heather Jane Rolff*
Serena: Julia Johanos*
Margot: Melinda Cowan*
Pilar: Sarah Rolleston*
Shandi/Brooke Wyndham: Nicolette Hart*
Kate/Chutney: Becca Andrews*
Cece/D.A. Joyce Riley: Natalie Newman*
Gabby/Mousey Client/Stenographer: Brittany Rose Hammond*
Leilani: Gaby Gamache*
Kristine: Kathleen Rooney*
Courtney/Judge: Pamela Reckamp*
Boutique Manager/Elle's Mom/Whitney: Laura Ernst
Elle's Dad/Winthrop/T.V. Reporter: Steve Isom*
Dewey/Kyle: Scott Guthrie*
Chad/Carlos: Joe Grandy*
Lowell/Bailiff: Stephen Barnowski
Aaron/Guard: Austin Hohnke*
Padamadan/Nikos: Erik Keiser*
Enid Hoopes: Katy Tibbets*
Jason/Kiki: Adam Brown*
Nick: Patrick David*
Paul: Jonathan Kwock
Bruiser: Jose
Rufus: Romeo
Harvard Students, Marching Band, Cheerleaders, Inmates, Salespeople: Becca Andrews*, Adam Brown*, Patrick David*, Laura Ernst, Gaby Gamache*, Joe Grandy*, Scott Guthrie*, Brittany Rose Hammond*, Austin Hohnke*, Steve Isom*, Jonathan Kwok, Natalie Newman*, Heather Parcells*, Pamela Reckamp*, Kathleen Rooney*, Charlie Williams*

Director: Michael Hamilton
Choreography Recreated by: Rusty Mowery
Musical Director: Lisa Campbell Albert
Scenic Designer: James Wolk
Costume Designer: Lou Bird
Lighting Designer: Matthew McCarthy
Orchestral Designer: Stuart M. Elmore
Production Stage Manager: Stacy A. Blackburn*

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the professional association of actors and stage managers in the US.

Photo: Peter Wochniak

-- Richard T. Green

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