Legally Blonde: The Musical hits all the right notes

    Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

    Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the theater that was home to one of the greenest characters on Broadway during Wicked’s 3½-year run, will play host to the pinkest for the next 3½ weeks. Legally Blonde: The Musical opened Wednesday night and offers theatergoers an evening of guilty pleasure fun that is not to be missed.

    I wouldn’t blame you at this point if you were wondering why someone thought it was a good idea to turn Legally Blonde, the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie about the blonde sorority girl who decided the best way to win back her ex-boyfriend was to get into Harvard Law School (“What? Like it’s hard?”), into a musical. I certainly did when I first heard about the show, which opened on Broadway in April 2007 and closed last fall.

    Yes, it is another Broadway musical based on a movie. Yes, it features a bubblegum pop-score that attracts the Hannah Montana crowd in droves. And yes, at times it can be as superficial as Paris Hilton’s “acting” in House of Wax. But look beyond the stereotypes, the comically witty dialogue and the occasional use of legal jargon, and you’ll find a show about one thing: being yourself and never letting others knock you down because of it.

    Heather Hach’s libretto mirrors the film’s plot to a tee: pretty boy Warner feels he needs a “Jackie, not a Marilyn” to succeed in politics and so he dumps his girlfriend Elle Woods (Becky Gulsvig) before going off to law school. The fashion major follows, only to discover that her ex-beau Warner (Jeff McLean) has a new love — the preppy snob Vivienne (Megan Lewis). No one at Harvard takes Elle seriously and she begins to doubt herself before Emmett (D.B. Bonds), the sheepish working-class attorney and teaching assistant, offers her a reality check. A high-profile murder trial gives Elle the chance to show her naysayers that she has more to offer besides the punch line to their spiteful blonde jokes.

    Director Jerry Mitchell recently won the 2009 Touring Broadway Award for Best Choreography for his energetic dance numbers (the tour also took home Best New Musical and Best Scenic Design). Little time passes without characters jumping around the stage as if high on sugar and Red Bull. The lively choreography is exceptionally sharp for the most part and even includes a prison yard jump rope number that will leave you tired just from watching.

    Married duo Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin have added new lyrics to several songs for this new production. The changes work best for the namesake tune “Legally Blonde.” The show’s only ballad finds Elle ready to give up on her career and head back to California but Emmett is not ready to let her go. New staging and fresh lyrics give this heartbreaking tune a deeper emotional weight.

    Broadway understudy Becky Gulsvig steps into the lead role and gives a sparkling performance reminiscent of Witherspoon’s bubbly take on the character. D.B. Bonds introduces Emmett with just the right amount of awkwardness so that it remains plausible for him to become the object of Elle’s affection later on in the show. Original Broadway cast member Natalie Joy Johnson takes over the part of Elle’s blue-collar hair stylist friend Paulette. Her principal song “Ireland” and its reprise offer little in terms of story development but allow the amusing actress to show off her vocal chops. Jeff McLean’s and Megan Lewis’s performances could benefit from giving Warner and Vivienne a bit more vigor. However, Lewis shines vocally during the show’s penultimate number “Legally Blonde Remix.”

    Elle’s spirited sorority sisters (led by comedic trio Cortney Wolfson, Rhiannon Hansen and Crystal Joy) reappear throughout the show as her own personal “Greek” chorus (after all, Warner choosing Vivienne is a “tragedy.”) The plot device provides some of the show’s funniest moments, including the introduction of the show’s signature cheerleading move, the “Bend and Snap.” And I dare you not to laugh at the hilariously inappropriate “There! Right! There!” which plays on as many politically incorrect stereotypes as possible, but does so in such an endearing manner that it avoids becoming offensive.

    If you didn’t enjoy the movie, the added spectacle of the musical probably won’t change sway verdict regarding Elle and company. However, those of you who loved Elle Woods and her designer duds will find that the musical offers a pleasantly clever account of this charming story.

    Legally Blonde plays through June 7 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. Tickets run $32 to $95 and can be purchased by visiting or calling the Broadway In Chicago ticket line at (312) 902-1400.


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