Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Theater review: 'Legally Blonde' is pretty in pink, but dull as dishwater

Becky Gulsving as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.

By Hap Erstein

Movies have long been geared to the teen market, and now so are Broadway musicals.

Female teens in search of sing-along tales of empowerment, such as Wicked and now Legally Blonde, the not-very-good, but wildly-popular-with-its-target-audience show at the Kravis Center this week.

I recall the 2001 movie from which this Pepto-Bismol-pink, high-energy, but hopelessly mechanical stage spectacle stems as being fairly fresh and charming. Fresh is no longer an option since the movie sequel helped the perky, fashion-savvy Elle Woods character wear out her welcome and the charm probably all came from the film’s uber-appealing star, Reese Witherspoon.

It is not that the national road company is lacking. The largely young, peppy cast is up to the task of director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s calisthenic production numbers and bubbly Becky Gulsving is very reminiscent of Witherspoon in the central role. The problem is the flat, bland material, to which one can only say with disdain: “Omigod, you guys,” which also happens to be title of the show’s opening song.

Elle, a UCLA grad in fashion merchandising, gets dumped by her Harvard-bound boy friend, Warner Huntington III (square-jawed, button-down Jeff McLean), for lacking sufficient gravitas to be the wife of a future senator. So a determined Elle elbows her way into Harvard Law, too, heading east with her yapping Chihuahua and a Greek chorus of her Malibu gal pals.

There she learns she not only does not need Warner, but she has an affinity for practicing law by applying her natural feminine instincts. Along the way, she attracts a more suitable mate, law school grad Emmett Forrest (a rumpled, puppyish D.B. Bonds), whom she transforms with a dress-for-success makeover.

All of this is presented in a two-dimensional, cartoon style that is both hard to take seriously and hard to hook into emotionally. Nor is it helped by a beat-heavy, more-rhythmic-than-melodic score by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin or the jokey script by Heather Hach. The songs’ lyrics are harder to judge, with the diction of the ensemble, the pace of the songs and the overly loud orchestra making most of the words unintelligible.

Still, Gulsving is a winning presence, more endearing than the show’s original Elle, whom she understudied on Broadway. Natalie Joy Johnson is a standout in the expanded role of lovelorn hairdresser Paulette who finds romance with a hunky UPS delivery guy and Ken Land is sufficiently unctuous as Elle’s law professor.

In his directing debut, Mitchell relies on plenty of dance numbers, most notably a jump rope exercise routine led by workout queen Brooke Wyndham (Colleen Sexton), accused of murder and defended by Elle, and an amusing, if tangential, Riverdance parody.

Riverdance gags are probably aimed over the heads of the target teen audience, which has virtually sold out this one-week run at the Kravis. Legally Blonde was the big lure to sell subscriptions to this first season of the center’s self-produced Broadway series. Maybe teens will be entertained by this insistent, surface-deep show, but for everyone else: Omigod, you guys.

LEGALLY BLONDE. Kravis Center, Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets; $25-$88. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

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