Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Liz Lauren.
The trend to make musicals out of movies instead of the other way around has been going on for quite some time, and as the latest, Tootsie, rolls into town for its Broadway tryout, it’s fun to revisit some of the best of the genre. That’s the case for the Paramount Theatre, which this week opened its production of the 2007 hit musical Legally Blonde, based on the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film of the same name. Directed by Trent Stork with Musical Direction by Kory Danielson, Legally Blonde is the perfect way to start a new season. It is a totally enjoyable party of a musical, and the opening night audience treated it like one, loudly cheering after every number.
The plot of the musical follows the film in most particulars: the story of a sorority president named Elle Woods (Casey Schuler) who is dumped by her boyfriend, the pretentiously named Warner Huntington III (Tyler Lain) because she is not a “serious” enough person and decides, on a whim, to prove her “serious” cred by following her lost love to grad school…at Harvard Law School. Never mind that this “Felicity”-like action actually argues that she is not as serious and mature as she wants to be; it’s a perfect opening gambit for two and a half hours of raucous, joyous entertainment.
The play’s ear-worm opening number, “Omigod, You Guys,” sets the stage perfectly, inviting us into Elle’s pink world (complete with Bruiser—played by Frankie—the little dog who was her constant companion in the movie), where everything is more than a little bit over the top, including her marital aspirations. After Warner dumps her, Elle (once she’s finished with two weeks of crying) sets out to win him back by joining him at Harvard. To do so she first needs a high enough score on the LSAT (“Oh, like it’s hard?”) and then a kick-butt essay to overcome the fact that her 4.0 is in Fashion Design. Elle and the Delta Nus show up in the Admissions Office to stage a glorious song and dance called “What You Want,” and she’s ultimately accepted when she appeals to the notion of Love.
But Harvard isn’t all that great to Elle, whose desires are…less than academic. Other students treat her as a pariah, she gets kicked out of classes for not studying, and (worst of all) Warner turns out to have a new girlfriend, Vivienne Kensington (Jacquelyne Jones). But a budding friendship with Teaching Assistant Emmett Forrest (Gerald Caesar) convinces her to begin to take her courses more seriously, and soon the (actually very intelligent) Elle begins to shine in class. She catches the attention of Professor Callahan (James Rank) and is among four students selected to help him with the large and already-infamous murder trial of exercise star Brooke Wyndham (Jenna Coker-Jones), herself a Delta Nu. (You can probably see where this is going.) Meanwhile, Elle gains a confidante in Paulette (Sophie Grimm), a manicurist she befriends and teaches the “99% effective with heterosexual males” move called the “Bend and Snap” so she can attract the attention of the UPS guy (James Doherty in a hilarious send-up of male sexuality).
Though the musical follows the film’s plot closely, you never get the sense that you are simply rewatching the movie, due in part to the conceit of turning the sisters of Delta Nu sorority into what is literally called a “Greek” chorus that speaks/sings/dances in Elle’s mind, partly to Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s catchy songs and brilliant and inventive choreography by Stork and Megan E. Farley, and partly to the terrific scenery. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set is not overly elaborate but has just the right touch of both the academic and the silly (a store called Klothez, for example, and a giant cell phone), and both Mike Tutaj’s projections and Nick Belley’s lights become almost like additional characters. Theresa Ham’s costumes are also on point throughout this visually very appealing show.
But ultimately nothing is going to work unless the main characters are strong. In that, Stork has hit the jackpot. In Schuler, a Louisville native, he found someone with just the right amount of Witherspoon’s appeal. Her voice is beautiful, and if she doesn’t play Elle as ditzy as the character appears at first in the film, her ability to convince us that this sorority girl from Malibu can become an excellent lawyer is marvelous. Caesar, with a mellifluous voice that is at home in songs like the plaintive title song but also can rock in “Chip on My Shoulder,” makes a perfect Emmett. Grimm is brilliant as the Boston born and bred Paulette, and her take on “Bend and Snap” is both energetic and hilarious. Jones’ powerful voice adds to the joy as Vivienne, a character who plays a bit differently here than in the movie, and Lain is a strong Warner, who is less smarmy here than on film (enough so that you can actually imagine someone like Elle being attracted to him) but still gets his comeuppance.
Legally Blonde is a wonderfully entertaining night at the theatre. It is a high-energy romp complete with dynamite singing and sparkling dancers, and it is tremendously funny to boot. There is nothing not to like about this play. Full of wonderfully theatrical moments and great performers, it’s one of those shows that makes you want to see it a second time. And I’ll bet that, if you did, you’d enjoy it as much the second time around. And I’ll be jealous of you for having done so.
Legally Blonde is now playing at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena, Aurora, until Oct 21. Performance times vary; check the website at Paramount Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.