Without its high roller, 'Legally Blonde' falls flat

The Baltimore Sun

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: The roughly 40,000 of you who will visit the Hippodrome Theatre in the next two weeks will deliberate on a controversial case. You must carefully weigh the evidence and render a verdict on whether Legally Blonde: The Musical is a tasteless rip-off or a clever homage.

I submit that, despite some mitigating factors to the contrary, the creative team of the stage show should be convicted of aesthetic violations. With two exceptions, the score runs the gamut of vapid to bland. The script is cluttered with songs and dances that don't move the story forward. While the film delivers its message of feminine empowerment with a light touch, the stage musical lurches into preachiness.

Legally Blonde tells the story of the rich and beautiful Elle Woods, who has been raised as a Malibu princess. ("One of our neighbors is Richard Simmons!") When Elle is dumped by her social-climbing boyfriend because she is not sufficiently "serious," she is driven to desperate measures, including applying to Harvard Law School. Improbably, she gets in.

The 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon was characterized by its unforced charm and its affection for the young women whom it satirizes; when Elle shows up for her first day at Harvard, she takes notes on a pink heart-shaped pad.

Some observers feared that Elle is so indelibly identified with its original star that no other actress could carry off the role. The musical's director, Jerry Mitchell, sidesteps that concern by casting actresses to play not so much Elle, but Witherspoon playing Elle. This is not one of those instances in which performers are encouraged to put their stamp on a role.

With her heart-shaped face framed by golden curls, actress Becky Gulsvig looks enough like Witherspoon to fool both actresses' families. She brings a mix of vulnerability and confidence to her portrayal

But while the movie had tons of charisma, it had zero song and dance numbers - an oversight Mitchell seeks to rectify. His background is primarily as a choreographer (he created the steps for the Broadway version of Hairspray), and he never misses an opportunity to put his cast through its moves, regardless of whether doing so advances the plot.

The stage version throws in a marching band, a chorus line, Irish step dance and a jump rope routine. What, no underwater dream ballet?

Considering that movement is so important to Mitchell, it's odd that the cast contains just one first-rate dancer, Ven Daniel, who plays Kyle, the UPS delivery guy. When Daniel performs a few spectacular leaps and flashes his gams, it's eye-opening. No wonder Elle's manicurist friend, Paulette, falls for the big lug.

The score by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin varies from forgettable to derivative, alternately echoing Chicago, Wicked and The Little Mermaid.

Only two numbers excel. Exhibit A is the jazzy "Blood in the Water," performed with oily brio by Ken Land. Exhibit B contains a welcome jolt of social commentary in "There! Right There," in which a witness' sexual orientation becomes a key plot point. Courtroom officials wonder, hilariously, of Nikos the pool boy, "Is he gay or European?"

Too often, the stage show gets bogged down with extraneous numbers such as Ireland, though the ballad has the advantage of allowing Natalie Joy Johnson, as Paulette, to show off her powerhouse vocals. Johnson, a Maryland native, is a brassy, appealing presence. She conveys an entire comic monologue with a single, droll twist of her mouth.

As with all shows, the ultimate arbiter of success will be the ticket-buying public. Legally Blonde: The Musical ran for 18 months on Broadway by trading on audiences' fond recollections of the film. It's hard to imagine that 20 years from now the musical will still find customers.

Just like a bad dye job, memories fade.

if you go

Legally Blonde: The Musical runs at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St., through Oct. 12. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $22-$67. Call 410-547-7328 or go to france-merrickpac.com.

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