It has a pop score on a sugar-high. A comprehensive course on the bend-and-snap. A gyrating marching band. Two dogs (one of them a diva). A courtroom drama hinged on the reliability of gaydar. A titillating Irish jig. A letter of recommendation from Oprah Winfrey. And a Playboy bunny.
It also has a lot of heart. A battle for acceptance. And a resounding and very present example of women’s and self empowerment.
It’s “Legally Blonde” and it just opened at Artistry. And despite packing all of this and more into its punch, this production just doesn’t leave you reeling.
With music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and a book by Heather Hach, “Legally Blonde” is a musical adaptation of the same-named 2001 Reese Witherspoon rom-com and Amanda Brown novel. Elle Woods, your seemingly stereotypical sorority-sister blonde, follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard with the goal of proving herself worthy of a spot in his ideal Kennedy Camelot future. With a push from Harvard Associate Emmett Forrest and backup (often literally) from her Delta Nu sisters, Elle realizes and proves there is value in herself beyond the superficial, winning love and court cases along the way.
Pacing and Packaging
Overall, Artistry’s production under the direction of Angela Timberman is lighthearted, silly, and adequate. Although there were some points brighter than others, I was never completely dazzled. More than anything, I think this has to do with the pacing and score of the show, which was too slow. I often got the impression that the cast was wound tight and ready to spring forward, but had to maintain the second-place speed of the orchestra, lead by music director Anita Ruth.
The design elements of the production did their jobs, but could have done more to amplify the explosive potential this show provides. Between the two-dimensional scrapbook-motif set (Joel Sass) and often full-stage-wash lighting (Karin Olson), the cast regularly looked small and lonely. Costumes (by Ed Gleeman) were period and appropriate, but frequently didn’t reflect the passage of time indicated in the script. Perhaps I needed to take a leaf out of Ms. Woods’ book and search beyond the superficial for meaning and value, but I ultimately was left feeling that the production value of Artistry’s “Legally Blonde” was inexpensive.
An Equal Ensemble
My first vocal “whoop” of the evening (which came far later than I expected), was for Paul R. Coate’s Professor Callahan. Mr. Coate’s natural stage presence, booming voice, and swagger add a necessary level of sophistication to the cast of characters. As Elle Woods, Angela Steele shines as a triple threat and offers a few rare and delightful moments of zaniness. Opposite Ms. Steele, Benjamin Rubenstein (Emmett Forrest) is good-natured and casually attracts attention. The relationship between the two leads blossomed during “Take it Like a Man,” which surprised me by being my favorite number of the entire production.
Artistry knows how to cast a unified ensemble, with all the performances on an equal level. However, some characters truly pop and Lars Nisswandt (Kyle), Michael Terrell Brown (Nikos), Mary Palazzolo (Paulette), and David Beukema (Elle’s Dad) all made me chuckle--it was clear they were having fun. And a well-deserved shoutout to Dorian Brooke (Brooke Wyndham) and her jump-roping inmates.
The clear standout of the Artistry’s “Legally Blonde” was Heidi Spesard-Noble’s choreography, which provided the rambunctious energy that this show demands. “What You Want,” “Positive,” and “Bend and Snap” were peppy moments that re-invigorated my faith that the show was going to amp up.
Over the past year and a half, I have consistently been impressed by Artistry’s productions. They set a high bar for themselves, which they constantly seem to raise. Combine that with my enthusiasm for “Legally Blonde,” and my expectations were very high going into Artistry’s opening night performance.
And maybe they were unfairly high, and that is on me. Nevertheless I left the show feeling disappointed. I just kept waiting for the show to reach another level. To let loose. To amp up. To pop! To explode! And although the production would occasionally gain that momentum, it too quickly died down.
My expectations aside, you owe it to your daughter, son, niece, nephew, or grandchild to take them to see this show. There is a lot more to “Legally Blonde” than haircare and a Chihuahua. It provides multiple relatable and obviously relevant examples of standing up against adversity and misogyny. And it demonstrates the value and attainability of self-empowerment.
Hopefully this show finds second gear during its run (through August 19th). It would just make these resonant messages even more invigorating.