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Friday, April 27, 2007

 

Tony Award Preview Week: Legally Blonde

LEGALLY BLONDE
book by Heather Hach
music and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe
directed by Jerry Mitchell
starring Laura Bell Bundy, Christian Borle, Orfeh, Kate Shindle and Michael Rupert
Palace Theatre, New York City

The sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach starts about twenty minutes into Legally Blonde, the new musical adaptation of Reese Witherspoon's 2001 movie about an unlikely law student. Never mind that it has been witlessly transformed into a guns-blazing, earplug-inducing Broadway extravaganza. Set aside the thin and obvious songwriting, the stripped-down book, the overblown design or the cardboard cutout performances. No...the sinking feeling in the stomach comes when you realize that, despite all of its disastrous elements, you are watching an enormous hit being born.

I and my stalwart companion (my apologies again, Kay) were surrounded in the audience by thousands of spring-break families from places like Kansas and Texas and Virginia, screaming their heads off and clapping wildly for this candy-coated musical comedy. You would have thought that Ms. Witherspoon was herself on the stage, or at least a Witherspoon knockoff (an Olsen twin, a Lohan maybe?), and The Beatles had reunited as the house band. But no...it's simply a familiar movie playing in the minds of people who don't go to theatre often, a fatal pairing for the Sondheim lovers of the world. Why? Because there are more of them than there are of us, and the industry is waking up to its future as a tourist destination. Call it the Mamma Mia Effect.

The genius of Legally Blonde, if there is such a thing, is that the show (directed by Hairspray choreographer Jerry Mitchell) is woefully easy to understand and frighteningly eager to please...not one stop remains unpulled in the effort to keep it simple, cutesy and loud. Legally Blonde doesn't have a brain in its head...and it likes it that way.

So what's worthwhile for a serious theatregoer? Not much. David Rockwell's pervasively pink set is an exercise in single-mindedness, which matches the one-note performance by Laura Bell Bundy, all earnestness and bounce. Leading man Christian Borle has almost zero chemistry with Bundy, and the talented veterans in the ensemble -- Michael Rupert, Kate Shindle, Leslie Kritzer and Orfeh -- are game but underutilized.

But if the wild applause and screaming fans are any indication, this musical wasn't made for me in the first place. It's a boulevard entertainment, meant solely for New York's burgeoning tourist trade. Does is succeed? Perhaps that's beside the point. What it does is keep Times Square's reputation as Vegas East alive. It's a show-stopping, bulb-popping, seat-shaking ball of unfocused, sugary energy. If that's enough for you, then please, be my guest.

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