In some respects, you can't fault "Legally Blonde," the kinetic new musical at Broadway's Palace Theatre. It really moves.
The lavish show (reportedly with a more than $12 million price tag) has energy to spare, a forward motion provided by ace director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell that simply refuses to quit. And a plot, based on the Amanda Brown novel and the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie, that is more than serviceable.
So why, despite the expensive glitz and an aggressive, go-go attitude, does "Legally Blonde" only fitfully entertain? Most prominently because of a disappointing score.
Its music and lyrics don't add much to the story of Elle Woods, a perky sorority sister at Delta Nu who gets dumped by her Harvard Law School-bound boyfriend and decides to follow him to its rarified ivy halls. Along the way, this blond fashion-plate, with a propensity for wearing pink, discovers her self-worth, finds a new beau and gets a law degree to boot.
Female empowerment has proven to be a gold mine on Broadway for another big show: "Wicked," and its green heroine, Elphaba. So you can see what the folks behind "Legally Blonde" might have been thinking as they set out to create their own musical-theater poster girt.
Book writer Heather Hach has nicely condensed the story and even managed to add a few new jokes with up-to-the-minute popular references. While not exactly a cinematic masterpiece, the film had a cheerful spirit that Hach, for the most part, preserves. Things get a little convoluted in Act 2 when Elle and a trio of other law students assist in the trial of physical-fitness guru accused of murdering her much older husband. Yet Mitchell never lets things lag for too long.
What slows down the production are some of the songs by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Most of them are vaguely pop, tunes with little discernible theatricality. The melodies evaporate quickly, particularly the more serious love songs for Elle, portrayed by Laura Bell Bundy, and her nerdy mentor, a teaching assistant played by Christian Borle.
Bundy can squeal "Omigod you guys" - which seems to be the one phrase all Delta Nu sisters have in common - with fervor.
Yet she doesn't quite have the warmth that Witherspoon brought to the movie. The actress radiates efficiency.
Borle is a first-rate comedian as anyone who saw his performance in "Monty Python's Spamalot" knows. Here, unfortunately, Borle's comedic skills are kept under wraps as the musical's nice if boring good guy.
The supporting players come off better, most notably Orfeh as a forlorn, blue-collar beautician, who, according to Elle, must learn how to "bend and snap" if she is to attract a man. In this case, the object of her adoration is a hunky UPS man (Andy Karl) who gets one of the evening's biggest laughs with his deadpan delivery announcement. "I've got a package."
Then there are Michael Rupert, in terrific voice, as the predatory law professor who has designs on Elle and Richard H. Blake as the self-absorbed, would-be lawyer who dumps her.
A "Greek" chorus of Elle's sorority sisters - Leslie Kritzer, Annaleigh Ashford, DeQuina Moore - leads many of the dance numbers that seem to pop up every few minutes. Mitchell, who has choreographed such shows as "Hairspray," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and the 2004 revival of "La Cage aux Folies," always keeps his large company of dancers on the run.
From a high-stepping march version of Elle's Harvard essay application to an athletic workout routine to a Michael Flatley-"Lord of the Dance" inspired spoof, Mitchell conjures movement with style and wit.
Designer Gregg Barnes has created a parade of colorful costumes, most notably several outfits reflecting Elle's Southern California sensibilities. And David Rockwell's settings are equally vivid.
Finally, there are the production's two canines, a Chihuahua and a bulldog, which, of course, get immediate audience approval. But it's Mitchell who should get the crowd's biggest hand. Making a show this big - and tuneless - move is hard work.
When Harvard Law student Elle Woods shows up at a party in a bunny costume in "Legally Blonde," someone quips: "You keep going ... and going ... and going."
The same is true of this endlessly energetic show. But for all its pep, bright colors and adorable dogs, the "Blonde" that breezed into the Palace last night is rarely - as Elle would say - superfun. It's only sorta fun.
Heather Hach's book faithfully retraces, with a couple tweaks, the hit Reese Witherspoon film that charts the rise of Elle (Laura Bell Bundy) from a twinkie obsessed with her ex (Richard H. Blake) to a smart cookie who rocks Harvard.
Hach cleverly uses Elle's sorority sisters as a Greek chorus to pump up the show's girl-power vibe. The dark-haired Leslie Kritzer, as Serena, is a sassy standout, and suggests that if brunettes don't have more fun, they have the funniest lines - and know how to work them.
"Blonde's" shortfalls are rooted in the score. Married songwriters Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's pop-centric tunes are serviceable, but few melodies prove catchy enough to stick. "Omigod You Guys," the opener, is the exception. Jerry Mitchell, choreographer and first-time Broadway director, has picked odd moments to musicalize. Like when Emmett (Christian Borle), Elle's Harvard mentor whom she comes to love, gets a new suit. Ditto a lengthy song about a peripheral trial witness' sexuality.
"Ireland," sung by Paulette (Orfeh), Elle's lovably tacky salon-owner pal, doesn't inform the character so much as serve as a setup for a later jokey jig. There are too many filler numbers and too few tunes in which Elle shows what makes her - and her heart - tick.
The real Elle finally breaks out with the title tune in the second act. The song begins as a lament and turns into a rousing declaration of big blond I-am-what-I-am confidence. At last Bundy, an appealing and talented actress, gets the chance to act (check out the tears in her eyes) and show off her pipes - and to step out of Witherspoon's shadow.
"Blonde" needed a few more such highlights.
The movie "Legally Blonde" had two fantastic things going for it - "Reese" and "Witherspoon."
The musical based on that 2001 movie, which opened last night at the Palace Theatre, has neither. It's a loss - a palpable loss.
It does have Laura Bell Bundy, who's pretty damn good, and it has an awesome wattage of girl-power which, unless you happen to be a boy, a man or a woman, could count for a lot.
The story is a proto-feminist tale of blond ambition with our sweet kid from SoCal (Bundy), who looks pretty-in-pink (and wouldn't look bad-in-beige), and has a taste for merchandising and the marketable skills of a cheerleader.
She responds to a breakup rebuff (she wasn't serious enough for a future U.S. senator!) from her oaf of a boyfriend (Richard H. Blake), by grabbing an unlikely place at Harvard Law and reinventing herself from sorority chick into legal eaglet.
She also gets to put down a sexual predator of a law professor (Michael Rupert), help her hairstylist buddy (Orfeh) to get her man, expose her old boyfriend for the social-climbing dimwit he is, keep her own Chihuahua (Chloe) happy, and win the heart of a new nerdy-but worthy lover (Christian Borle).
Her dream come true! But the audience also has to deal with the amorphous, synthetic and maniacally empty-headed music. When was it that so many Broadway musicals took "Looney" to their hearts but managed to leave out the "Tunes"?
Heather Hach's book, based on the screenplay and the original novel (who knew?) by Amanda Brown, makes all the right moves and has a good feel for both fun and wit, even though theater necessarily lacks the open-ended possibilities of a movie.
And unfortunately, the score never picks up the slack, although the lyrics by the husband and wife team of Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin are markedly sharper than their usual.
Jerry Mitchell, making his debut as a full-scaled Broadway director, gives the story a staging that moves from the frenetic to the frantic, and his choreography is to choreography what paint-by-numbers is to portraiture.
That said, his dances certainly have a slick snap, crackle and pop. His mickey-taking of Irish step-dancing ("The Pirate Queen" anyone?) and his whip-and-skip routine for a luscious Nicki Snelson and assorted lady convicts are both zippy fun.
David Rockwell's scenery reminds us, not unpleasantly, of his sets for "Hairspray," which is doubtless why the producers commissioned him in the first place, and in the second place, Gregg Barnes' stylish costumes run a beautifully calculated gamut from the tackily fashionable to the fashionably tacky.
And the performances are as cozily right as the show's beautifully trained Chihuahua and Churchillian bulldog.
I loved - in moderation - the effervescent and radiant Bundy, I loved even more the crazy, measured charm of Borle as the smartest kid on the block, and Rupert's crisply supercilious law professor, while Orfeh proves adorable value as a beautician who doubts her beauty and a stylist needing more style.
A pleasant if noisy night out - but for those who have seen the movie, the wraith of Witherspoon hovers dangerously close.
Flossing between songs is recommended for anyone who attends “Legally Blonde,” the nonstop sugar rush of a show that opened last night at the Palace Theater, joining the ranks of such nearby temples to candy worship as the M&M and Hershey’s theme stores.
This high-energy, empty-calories and expensive-looking hymn to the glories of girlishness, based on the 2001 film of the same title, approximates the experience of eating a jumbo box of Gummi Bears in one sitting. This may be common fare for the show’s apparent target audience — female ’tweens and teenagers who still believe in Barbie. But unless you’re used to such a diet, you wind up feeling jittery, glazed and determined to swear off sweets for at least a month.
I say this as one who fell, though not hard, for the confectionary charms of the movie version of this story about Elle Woods, a frivolous California dream girl who finds the true gold beneath her goldenness by going to Harvard Law School. But the movie had one overwhelming advantage in its leading lady, Reese Witherspoon — or more specifically, Ms. Witherspoon’s square chin and everything it signifies: grit, smarts, a will to dominate and that soupçon of freakishness that separates a star-in-the-making from the professional beauties.
“Legally Blonde,” the musical, has Laura Bell Bundy, the kind of young woman who summons instant parental pride in the middle-aged. In addition to her prom-queen prettiness, she sings and dances flawlessly, and she delivers silly lines as if she meant them.
But she lacks the quirkiness and irresistible watch-me egotism that a big, heroine-worshiping musical needs at its center. Imagine “Hello, Dolly!” with Shirley Jones instead of Carol Channing, and you’ll get the idea.
This means that the weight of the show, directed with hyperkinetic effusiveness by Jerry Mitchell, shifts to its feel-good formula. And don’t underestimate the potency of that formula, which insists that a girl can be a powder puff and a power broker at the same time.
With its pink-dominated color scheme (in deluxe sets by David Rockwell and costumes by Gregg Barnes) and matching cherry-soda score of ballads of self-empowerment (by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin), “Legally Blonde” is infused on every level with the message that it’s O.K. to be a princess. This is a show aimed at the girls who flocked to the fairy-tale blockbuster “Wicked,” but left feeling secretly disappointed that it was the dour, green-skinned Elphaba who got the guy, not the glittery, popular Glinda.
Among the brand-name musicals inspired by Hollywood hits on Broadway in recent years, “Legally Blonde” is better than most at replicating the essence of its model. (The theater division of MGM, which produced the film, is one of the producers here as well.) True, Heather Hatch’s book scales up, sometimes to the point of vulgarity, the cartoonishness of a work that was hardly subtle to begin with. And it further simplifies characters who were already caricatures.
But unlike such deadweight musicals as “Footloose,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Lestat,” “Legally Blonde” never threatens to put you to sleep. On the contrary, its cast members emanate a wired, attention-fixing tirelessness that suggests they have all been subsisting on Red Bull (Elle’s favorite drink, given a jokey product-placement moment in the show).
This may be necessary, given the paces that Mr. Mitchell puts them through. Hitherto known as an exceptionally lively choreographer (“The Full Monty,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Hairspray”), he makes his debut as a director here. It makes sense, then, that “Legally Blonde” should be a dance-driven show.
Mr. Mitchell borrows heavily (and appropriately) from music and exercise videos. Fleeting touches of choreographic wit — salty amid the prevailing sweetness — show up in quick, funny riffs on hip-hop dancing as interpreted by Malibu rich kids. Less amusing is the Riverdancing motif woven throughout the show. (Don’t ask.)
The production makes entertaining use of a Greek chorus of sorority sisters, who comment Supremes-style on Elle’s plight. (The actress playing one of them, Leslie Kritzer, has an original satiric vibrancy that Ms. Bundy could use more of.)
But Mr. Mitchell is also a passionate fan of vintage Broadway musicals. So every so often “Legally Blonde” rolls out another big number that pays tribute to its female star, à la “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame.” Elle is allowed to be the center of not one, but two high-stepping parade numbers. Ms. Bundy responds to all this attention with a glossy graciousness, though what you’re hungering for is baby-diva fireworks.
The likable supporting cast includes Richard H. Blake as Elle’s narcissistic ex-boyfriend, the poised Kate Shindle as her chief rival, the charmingly nerdy Christian Borle as the man who sees her true worth and Orfeh, whose powerhouse voice seems a bit at odds with her hang-dog character, the love-bruised manicurist who becomes Elle’s best friend.
To Tell the Story Chico and Chloe, who play (and are) real dogs, have undeniable stage presence.
The reliable Michael Rupert is very good as a smarmy, stuffed-silk-shirt professor who sings of the law in Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque numbers that begin promisingly but peter out. And Andy Karl is a hilarious walking sight gag as a hunky delivery man in tight shorts, on hand to demonstrate that women, too, have the right to be wolf whistlers.
You see, “Legally Blonde” lets a gal have it all. She can play the bimbo while admiring bimbos of the opposite sex. She can wear pink as if it were navy blue. And while she knows that appearance isn’t everything, she also knows that it counts for an awful lot. Hence a makeover sequence in which Mr. Borle is transformed from academic geek to corporate Greek god.
But what about those who don’t appreciate the value of a manicure or a leg wax? Among Elle’s Harvard classmates is a dowdy lesbian (played by Natalie Joy Johnson), who is routinely the object of the show’s most unsavory jokes. Which makes you wonder uneasily if the message of “Legally Blonde” isn’t just that it’s O.K. to be pretty, but that it’s not O.K. not to be.
Omigod, Broadway totally has a new princess. In much the same way Tracy Turnblad sashayed into town in "Hairspray" or the budding "Wicked" witches touched down, Elle Woods beams in from planet Malibu via Harvard Law in "Legally Blonde," bringing girl-empowerment aplenty. While the hit 2001 MGM film was a cute premise in search of a plot, kept afloat by Reese Witherspoon's dazzling charisma, the musical trades up on the original model in both character development and infectious comedy. It may not be bulging with subtext or boast a score for the ages, but this pinksapoppin funhouse delivers exactly what it promises.
Working from Amanda Brown's novel and Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith's screenplay, book writer Heather Hach has added definition to the story's generic message about being true to yourself and not judging people by their packaging. As in her major previous credit, Disney's delightful 2003 "Freaky Friday" remake, Hach dispenses those life lessons with a disarmingly light touch.
"You have the right to be rich, hot and blonde" may hardly qualify as a motto for society's most downtrodden underdogs, but encased in this effervescent anthem to female self-realization, the rallying cry to go forth and tap the potential to be more than just a trophy wife becomes almost universal.
Still, this is not exactly "Cabaret" and without the right guiding hand the show might have evaporated in its own vaporousness. Choreographer-turned-director Jerry Mitchell has done a creditable job of driving this well-oiled machine. Its zippiness in the opening stretch, in particular, is almost dizzying.
Admittedly, any show that begins with a conversation between a sorority bubblehead and a yapping Chihuahua (Elle's scene-stealing pooch Bruiser) has this critic at curtain-up. But even without that stroke of shameless crowd-pleasing, Mitchell and composing team Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin get things off to a delirious start. So many musicals make the mistake of trudging through establishing book scenes and spreading the first-act numbers too thin. But "Legally Blonde" fires them off bam-bam-bam, clocking high-speed narrative miles as it pumps the energy level with a series of songs breezing through multiple locations and quick costume changes.
We go from "Omigod You Guys" (a song designed to embed itself on a loop in your brain for days), as Elle (Laura Bell Bundy) and the girls prepare for her big date, to "Serious," a dollop of double-edged boy-band schmaltz in which the expected proposal from Elle's vain, ambitious boyfriend Warner (Richard H. Blake) turns instead into her being unceremoniously dumped.
"Daughter of Delta Nu" has Elle's sorority sisters coaxing her out of depression, while the multi-part "What You Want" begins as a plan to follow Warner to Harvard and win him back by showing how smart and serious she can be, follows Elle through her LSAT preparations and her struggle to abstain from Spring Fling partying, and blooms into a rousing showstopper with her Harvard admission application, complete with cheerleaders and drum corps. And that's just the first half-hour.
No musical could entirely hope to sustain that breakneck pace, but, even when its balloon deflates a little, "Legally Blonde" keeps its motor purring. Mitchell directs the show to within an inch of its life, keeping every last member of the large ensemble busy. But while his dance background might be expected to make movement a priority, the director's work with the writer and actors to etch their characters and flesh out their respective journeys keeps the show buoyant.
Alongside Elle, there's Warner's initially aloof blueblood replacement girlfriend, Vivienne (Kate Shindle); coolly unscrupulous Professor Callahan (Michael Rupert), whose shark ethos gets amusingly outlined in "Blood in the Water"; teaching assistant Emmett (Christian Borle), who, as Elle's new romantic interest, is more developed than Luke Wilson's character in the movie and has a relaxed, self-effacing charm; fitness empire queen and murder defendant Brooke (Nikki Snelson); and Paulette (Orfeh), the trashy working-class hairdresser who befriends Elle and in exchange gets a self-esteem makeover that helps her land the "walking porn" UPS guy (Andy Karl).
One of several key scenes in the movie that were musical numbers waiting to happen, the man-hook "Bend and Snap" routine yields an upbeat dance number and is cleverly employed to further a plot point in Brooke's trial.
Commenting on the action as a Greek chorus in Elle's head is a sorority sister trio, captained with comic verve by the hilarious Leslie Kritzer, who's way overdue for a starring role, and ably backed by Annaleigh Ashford and DeQuina Moore.
Of course the most crucial cast element is Elle, and Bundy could hardly be more winning. Decked out in signature pink, she adheres to the mold created by Witherspoon yet makes the role her own with a force-of-nature confidence that's never brash, offsetting Elle's can-do entitlement with touching vulnerability and a genuine warmth that cements her connection to even the skeptics in her radiant orbit. It's perhaps significant that Bundy's first Broadway gig was as the original Amber in "Hairspray," the show "Legally Blonde" most wants to emulate.
OK, so it's easy to quibble with the musical's weaknesses. Structurally, the murder trial could be introduced earlier, and, being the first time we encounter the character, Brooke's workout number, "Whipped Into Shape," seems oddly placed at the opening of act two. O'Keefe and Benjamin's pop, soul and hip-hop inflected melodies are rarely as catchy as the cheeky humor and contemporary cultural references of their lyrics and they have failed to give Elle a defining song to echo her personal growth. And Mitchell's choreography is more peppy than inventive, only really gathering athletic steam in "Bend and Snap" and Elle's Harvard application.
But the show's good-natured appeal is undeniable, right down to the delicious, probably unintentionally cruel timing of its "Riverdance" parody, following turgid fellow Broadway newcomer "The Pirate Queen" into New York. (The element stems from Paulette's Emerald Isle fixation, articulated with Orfeh's powerhouse pipes in the very funny song, "Ireland.") Even its gay stereotyping is affectionate; the refrain of "Gay or European?" likely will make courtroom number "There! Right There!" an instant staple of gay men's choruses.
Ultimately, however, the core audience for this show will be female -- from preteens through to their mothers and maybe even grandmothers. Hach not only has guided Elle to empowering fulfillment but Paulette, Vivienne and Brooke all reveal themselves to be women capable of navigating their own distinctive paths.
On the tech side, the show is a sparkling confection, animated by David Rockwell's vibrantly cartoonish sets with their typically playful use of skewed perspective and the candy-kissed lighting of Ken Posner and Paul Miller. Gregg Barnes' costumes help nail the characters with wit and insight. Sole minor flaw is an over-amped sound mix that at times compromises lyrical clarity for volume.