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Stage: "Legally Blonde: The Musical" at Lee St. Theatre
Diverse casting and strong direction elevate a 22-year old story
Editor’s Note: Nearly all performances of Legally Blonde are sold out – only one performance still has seats available. Get tickets to the Sunday, July 16 matinee now.
In its 2007 debut, “Legally Blonde: The Musical” was an exuberant, flashy fan-service vehicle which delighted audiences and divided critics. Replete with middling musical numbers and nods to Legally Blonde lore, you loved it because you got it or didn’t because you didn’t.
Now on stage at Lee Street Theatre in Salisbury, “Legally Blonde” fits better into this later decade than anyone would have predicted. The diverse cast, which features a reliable supporting ensemble, two chihuahuas, and a perfect Elle Woods in Iris DeWitt, takes audiences on a hilarious roller coaster ride through the academic ascent of the iconic fashion merchandising major.
On a barebones set designed in the round, choreographer David T. Loudermilk serves the audience tight set pieces one after another. Elle’s Delta Nu sisters sweep around and circle the platform in the middle of the room like synchronized swimmers. We are lucky to have them in the second half, present as a daydream-ensemble in Elle’s mind and hilariously dubbed the “Greek chorus.” Watch out for the golf cart carrying Elle’s parents, which circles the stage once and is just one of the clever ways Lee Street brings this spare set to eye-popping life.
DeWitt is the consummate leading actor. With the finest singing voice in the ensemble, her Elle Woods is performed with faithful precision. For fans of “Legally Blonde,” DeWitt’s delivery will be deeply satisfying. Her optimism and indefatigable chutzpah comes across in a familiar, determined smirk. Her voice is Reese Witherspoon’s Elle. The part is heavy lifting for any actor – Elle Woods must carry the show on her back. DeWitt gets plenty of support from an ensemble that leaves it all on the floor, but her performance alone is worth the price of a ticket.
However, as with the original, the show is stolen by the idiosyncratic hair stylist Paulette Purcelle. Played with maximum effort by the magnetic Jessica Jax, audiences at Lee Street will get a very different Paulette than they are used to. Rather than choosing to channel the eminently imitable-yet-inimitable Jennifer Coolidge’s shy, awkward performance from the 2001 and 2003 films, Jax returns a loud and exuberant Paulette whose big dreams don’t pull her feet off the ground. Jax’s rendition of “Ireland” is the funniest performance of the show.
The cast is nearly 30 actors deep, and there are more than a few memorable turns. Abigail Skibstead as Elle’s uptight rival Vivenne Kensington and Tori Carpenter as feminist activist Enid Hoops are a perfect fit, chips on their shoulders both. Triple-cast Mason Livers, who shows up as Grandmaster Chad and Paulette’s deadbeat ex Dewey, drew whoops and laughs as the strutting UPS delivery driver Kyle in one of many scenes where Rod Oden’s direction employs the female gaze. Evan Moreno appears for most of the play as flowy and glamorous Delta Nu sister Natalie, only to steal the climactic courtroom scene as pool boy Nikos Argitakos. Alexis Nason shines as embattled fitness guru Brooke Wyndham. Even the court stenographer, played by Kenzie Cloninger, got a resounding chuckle for their only line.
And it bears mentioning that Bruiser Woods and Rufus, played by Loudermilk’s chihuahuas Lala and Reepicheep, are, as Oden put it to me in an email, “professionals through and through.”
Callahan, the gatekeeping law professor, could not be so deserving of an audience’s ire without a confident performance from Nick Southwick. His early number “Blood In The Water” sets the tone for Elle’s challenge with a prim, sinister delivery. Emmett Forest, Elle’s romantic interest, is gentle and sincere in Lee Street veteran Joey Moray’s characterization.
The ensemble is used to great effect in “Legally Blonde,” holding the principles together at a breakneck pace. “Positive,” performed by Kiara Carol, Alana Williamson, and Jaylyn Powell as Elle’s Greek chorus members Margot, Serena, and Pilar, is just one number where the choreography and performances shine together.
Departing somewhat from its source material, the musical sets up a male-savior storyline in the first half, only to deconstruct it in the second. Men everywhere in Elle’s life know better than her what is best for her. It is grating to see that Emmet, her law-school TA and romantic interest, although well-intentioned, is no different. He corrects and adjusts Elle over the winter break with the aim of making her less Malibu Barbie and more courtroom-appropriate. It is a welcome parallel that, in the second half, Elle turns the tables and updates Emmet’s rumpled corduroy to a gleaming blazer in order to help him be taken more seriously.
Some of the source material’s gender politics haven’t aged well. On the page, Enid is a queer stock character, and is thankfully elevated by Carpenter’s performance and Beth Bentley’s costume design.
The outing of the character Nikos Argitakos on the stand, one of “Legally Blonde’s” crucial moments, gave Lee Street even less to work with. The flattening, cringy comedic moment in the film, and its inflation to an entire song in the musical, has drawn pointed criticism since the Broadway debut and up through recent productions. “There! Right There!” scrutinizes Argitakos’s appearance, employing stereotypical signifiers of gayness to discredit his claims on the stand as it asks the question, “is he gay or European?”
Yet, the tone at Lee Street feels different.
Oden’s choice to assemble a cast diverse in gender presentation as well as body type and ethnicity illuminates and alters familiar themes and moments by turns, finding refreshing takes on those original constructions that are becoming stuffier with time. Casting Moreno in juxtaposed roles that deliberately project gender fluidity reclaims this out of date part of the story. By the time “There! Right There!” rolls around, Elle’s prescience about Argitakos manner and good grooming does not feel like a cynical dissection from afar as much as cultural acumen from a member of the in-crowd. In its original form, the musical itself could expect dwindling frequency for this tone deaf moment; but, by embracing the modern context, Lee Street has entirely updated a tired plot point.
“Legally Blonde: The Musical” at Lee Street Theatre is a welcome romp through memory lane and a fresh take on a cute, if very silly, story. The positive emotional returns the cast receive from this performance are obvious and infectious, and audiences will be buoyed by their energy long after the final bow.
Nearly all performances of Legally Blonde are sold out – only one performance still has seats available. Get your tickets to the Sunday, July 16 matinee now.
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