Legally Blonde, Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Book by Heather Hach, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the MGM film. Directed by John Saunders. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Pull out your inner freak!"
Patrick Heffernan as Emmett; photo provided
"Sugar" the musical cannot compete with "Some Like It Hot," the film comedy on which it is based. Neither can the estimable "Woman of the Year" nor "Applause," that misconceived stage version of "All About Eve" nor "Shenandoah" or "Donnybrook," which started out as "The Quiet Man." Unfortunately, if you liked the Reese Witherspoon movie, "Legally Blonde," as I did, the musical won’t elate you. It’s just not as good.
You can see it now on stage at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York where it will be holding court through July 22 and you can judge for yourself how well this young lawyer romantic comedy fares on the musical stage. Its two acts closely follow the film script but so much has been lost in the transition as song after song drearily moves the plot along while good solid funny stuff has been stripped away to make room for the music. If the music was better it would help. If the lyrics were sharper instead of just so much blah-blah-blah that would also help this show along. That, of course, is the trade-off these adaptations of films often make: good solid character dialogue disappears into the song that neither enlightens, broadens or deepens the show.
In this case, I should tell you, the second act is far superior to the first act. It is tighter and dryer and the humor from the film makes a much-hoped-for comeback. Director John Saunders grabs these moments and wrings laughter and empathy out of them from a cast that does the best it can to support his urgent need for something good.
Husband and wife writing team Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin have written two or three other shows but so far this is their only real success (he had a grand success with "Bat Boy, the Musical) and it’s hard to know why. They win awards for their work but if this is their best example, then the awards are without merit. The book-writer has even fewer credible credits to her name. The show, which ran a total of 625 performances in 2007-2008 was nominated for seven Tony Awards and twelve Drama Desk Awards.It must have been a slim-pickings year for new musicals and even so, it won no awards.
The cast in Chatham features Leanne Smith as Elle Woods, the Reese Witherspoon heroine and she is a dead-on clone of the film star. Smith moves and sings and pouts and plays well with others, but she is not Elle Woods. What made the character work in the film was the depth of the Valley Girl which is missing in this performance. Smith’s version is not two-dimensional by any means, but the heart of Elle is not to be trifled with and this show doesn’t give her much to use to expose that heart. It isn’t until the end of Act One that she even seems to be alive. Again, Act Two was much, much better.
As the man she loves, Warner, Lars Lee turns in an interminably dull performance. He has so little to offer that there is no understanding Elle’s need to follow and pursue this man. His east coast girlfriend, Vivienne, is played vividly by Elyse Langley, however.
The man she should pursue, Emmett, is nicely played by Patrick Heffernan. He has all the awkward charm his role requires and we can forgive him the little things he cannot help. Callahan, the big-shot lawyer, is played with appropriately smarmy manners by Rob Richardson. Brooke, the blonde on trial for murder, is well-portrayed by Kelsey Stalter who almost stops the show in Act Two with her workout number "Whipped Into Shape" which has been wonderfully choreographed by Brian Patrick Murphy and Sara Sheperd.
Definitely stopping the show, twice, with thunderous applause was Monica M. Wemitt playing the hair-dresser Paulette. In both acts she has songs that place her on the map and take her into the stratosphere. She is as funny as this second-rate script allows and as touching as she can be in her pursuit of justice and a hunky man.
Others in the cast who do well in their roles are Christina Carlucci, Jill Christine, and Laura Helm as the Greek Chorus, Lauren French as Enid and Lisa Franklin as the Judge.
If only this was a better show this company would probably do even better. Even so, they do have a nice physical production to work in, with very good sets designed by Kevin Gleason, costumes that evoke the original material designed by Travis Chinick and excellent lighting designed by Kevin Gleason. Musical Director Josh D. Smith and his crew deliver well on the mediocre music and limited instrumentation seems to suit what melody there is.
John Saunders has handled everything as smoothly and expertly as he could with this stuff but it seems a shame that when his work is this good the material should be so awful.
This show runs for three weeks at this theater and I hope the word of mouth about the really good things on the stage can carry them through to their next offering. I think it will be difficult, however, to fill houses with what "Legally Blonde" has to offer.