By Jeff Walsh
With an opening song entitled "Omigod You Guys," Legally Blonde: The Musical clearly establishes itself as the latest offering in the trend of popular movies being turned into Broadway musicals. Whether or not you think that's a good idea overall, the real question is whether it will be the next Hairspray or The Wedding Singer? The Producers or High Fidelity?
But, having just gone to the show's opening night in San Francisco, two months before it opens on Broadway (it plays at the Golden Gate Theatre through February 24, details here), the show was certainly a crowd-pleaser. As much as I love to go to the theater to watch an emotional journey, learn about myself, and watch characters make breakthroughs that speak to the universal truths that we all know, well... that kind of expectation would make this show lethally bland. Besides, who would expect anything like that from Legally Blonde?! Duh!
The source material itself was a breezy movie starring Reese Witherspoon that sold itself largely on the spirit of her character and the way Witherspoon sold it so convincingly. In the stage version, Elle Woods (played by Laura Bell Bundy, who previously originated the role of Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray on Broadway (itself coming out as a movie musical this summer)) really isn't given much opportunity to establish her character with as much depth as the movie did. All of the singing and the dancing and the one-liners and the pace of the show never gave that one glimpse into her humanity that would really make it the star vehicle it could be (which could very well be tweaked before they open on Broadway). She has the perk, the delivery, the spirit, but that last peak into the heart of what drives Elle Woods just needs to be polished up earlier in the show.
The show, thankfully, doesn't take itself seriously (if that was ever an option). I always worry about references to match.com, Beyonce and such being a bit too of-the-moment, but these days, it would be a blessing to have a show playing long enough to worry about such matters. Even in the pre-show warning, Elle Woods warns the audience that if they use any recording devices to post parts of the show on YouTube, it would totally suck.
One thing you can't say about the show is that it drags anywhere. The direction by first-time director Jerry Mitchell (who also choreographed the show) never stops. Things are constantly flying in from the side of the stage, from under the stage, above the stage, you name it, with barely a beat between scenes. Even the cast have a few "how did they just change clothes so fast?!" moments, as scenes begin as the set is still flying in from the wings.
The cast is stellar, as well. Everyone effortlessly drifts between the comedy, dance, drama, Irish dancing, jump rope calisthenics, and marching band drum breakdowns without missing a beat. This might also mark the first time that a Greek chorus that appears throughout a show is actually comprised of members of the Greek system, in the form of Elle's sorority sisters. And one of the funniest moments in the show is a debate whether one of the characters is gay or European. The show seems like it really, really wants to do everything it can to win you over, and whenever it seemed like it was about to try too hard, it pulled back just at the right moment.
The music was entertaining, the lyrics funny, and the cast really blends well together on the musical numbers. That said, they seem very of-the-show and it's hard to imagine anything breaking out of the show as a new favorite karaoke song or radio hit. Of course, the days of songs breaking out of Broadway shows has been, with rare exception, gone for quite a while. But say, "Seasons Of Love," from Rent... is an example of a song that works great in the show, but outside of the show, it can still stand on its own. But to lay a claim like that on Legally Blonde would just put it on a long, long list of shows all doing well on Broadway.
But, for the most part, let's face it. The crowd that is going to go to Legally Blonde: The Musical is self-selecting. When I was entering the theater, a lot of people said they love the movie and can't wait to see it on stage now, and that's going to account for a lot of the audience (If you loved Hairspray and Mamma Mia, you'll definitely love this show, too). The spirit of the movie is pretty much intact, right down to Elle having a dog with her onstage. The music is fun, spirited, and carries the show perfectly. The cast is young, exuberant, and having a lot of fun with the material. And, as soon as the show ended, the crowd was on its feet cheering wildly.
If you're going to this show to learn anything about yourself, it had better be that sometimes it's OK just to lighten up and have fun.