by Zack Smith
LEGALLY BLONDE—THE MUSICAL
* * * stars
@ Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
Through Oct. 14
Of the approximately nine billion theatrical films rebranded onto Broadway, Legally Blonde is a smoother translation than most—it's easy to envision Judy Holliday or Kristin Chenoweth in their younger years as Elle Woods, the smarter-than-she-looks sorority queen who brings her pink wardrobe to Harvard Law in pursuit of an ex-boyfriend. The show presented at NC Theatre's production of Legally Blonde: The Musical could have worked perfectly well as a from-scratch show with its witty lyrics and endless energy. However, the show is occasionally dragged down by the need to service its source material, namely the 2001 Robert Luketic-directed film that screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith adapted from a novel by Amanda Brown.
One might not expect to bring up Stephen Sondheim when discussing a musical based on a Reese Witherspoon movie, but the songs by Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy: The Musical) and Nell Benjamin embrace many of the personal rules Sondheim lays out in his lyrics collection Finishing the Hat. Chiefly, the lyrics succeed by relying on multiple and sometimes obscure rhymes to keep the energy high ("I won a Fulbright and a Rhodes/I write financial software codes").
Like the film, Legally Blonde embraces the silliness of its premise, featuring a group of singing sorority girls as a "Greek Chorus" and commenting on its own plot (during a scene where two characters grow closer at a department store, one is sprayed with perfume samples they're informed are called "Love" and "Subtext"). Yet the production is at its best when it's able to step back from its plot and flesh out minor moments from the film into full-fledged numbers: A courtroom scene where the characters try to determine if a witness is "Gay or European" is a sly commentary on archetypes that enlivens an otherwise thin second act.
Indeed, the biggest problem with Legally Blonde: The Musical is that it has to fulfill certain obligations as an adaptation of Legally Blonde-the-film. After a sweet and amusing first act, most of the second act is wasted on a flimsy courtroom plot, while numbers such as the inevitable "Bend and Snap" seduction technique add little momentum to the stage show.
Although Autumn Hurlbert is a charming dynamo as Elle (and like Reese Witherspoon, she seems too smart to be mistaken for a dumb blonde in the first place), there's a surplus of supporting characters who aren't well fleshed out. Musical theater veteran Dirk Lumbard channels Chicago's shyster Billy Flynn as the unctuous Professor Callahan in the "Blood in the Water" classroom number, has little else to do afterward. Broadway's Kathy Fitzgerald gets the biggest spotlight (and laughs) as the salon owner Paulette, but her scenes often feel like a separate play unto themselves.
Like the film, there's plenty to like in Legally Blonde: The Musical—Denis Jones' direction and choreography keep the production moving at lightning speed even with constant scene and costume changes, and it's a charming, spirited story about a young woman realizing her potential. While it's still one of the better film-to-musical adaptations, like many blondes, it runs into trouble when its roots are showing.