January 30, 2012
Not one but two cute pooches roam the circular hot-pink landscape of the Marriott Theatre's "Legally Blonde," the much-maligned Broadway musical based on the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie about Elle Woods, a savvy Malibu homecoming queen of the "Clueless" type who dusts off the books and heads for Harvard Law School. There, she tries to win back her superficial boyfriend, only to over-achieve, discover herself and strike a blow against the stereotyping of unfortunate, misunderstood blondes everywhere.
Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin came up with a peppy, poppy, zesty score that contains such lyrical classics as "Omigod You Guys," "Bend and Snap" and, lest you think all of this is a trivial confection, "Serious." And Marc Robin is at the helm of the first Chicago-area production of the show (the tour aside) that sticks Elle in the round, rounds up a star in Chelsea Packard who most certainly is a winner in the gene pool (as they say of Elle), and, based on the crowd Friday night, lowers the average age of a Marriott audience by a good few decades.
I'm all for that — it was fun in the lobby to watch all the mothers and daughters, along with a few grandmothers and granddaughters, loving being all glammed up and laughing together on a Friday night — and I've always liked "Legally Blonde" slightly more than most. O'Keefe and Benjamin's score did not get the credit it deserved thanks to "Legally Blonde" arriving on Broadway at a moment when there was widespread rebellion against the sudden plethora of popular movies being turned into musicals that did little more than trade on the familiarity of the source. Certainly, "Legally Blonde" is no formative masterpiece. It follows the movie very closely and, once you see it in the round with limited scenery to help with location, you can get distracted by the rather chaotic 20 minutes in which the thing is all cheerleaders, sped-up chronology, bitty little scenes and scraps of numbers that belong in a movie, not a show. Seeing this piece one night after the masterful "Gypsy" at the Drury Lane Oakbrook certainly lays those early scenes in sharp relief.
But "Legally Blonde" grows on you (just as several of its catchy numbers lodge in your skull) and, by Act 2, Robin finds a workable visual groove that certainly delivers a flashy show. (Nancy Missimi delivers a spectacular suite of shimmering costumes.) Each of the three times I've seen the material, I've warmed to the romantic subplot involving Elle's working class Boston hairdresser, a beaten-down woman who helps Elle find herself and who eventually finds her own Big Brown love, a hunky UPS guy. Christine Sherrill, an actress who invariably packs a lot of surprises, once she lets herself loose — is especially good in Robin's production, and so is Steve Calzaretta as the well-delivered object of her affection.
Indeed, Robin has found a very strong cast for all of his biggest roles, including Gene Weygandt as the authoritarian professor whom Elle must beat, Summer Naomi Smart as a fitness entrepreneur and Elle's first client (Smart is stellar) and David Larsen as Elle's eventual love interest. Larsen, a rising Broadway player, is one of those inherently likable actors — warm, kind, slightly goofy — whose characters are so easy to empathize with. It's a perfect piece of casting, and Larsen calms many of the rougher edges elsewhere.
I've seen quirkier Elles than Packard, a well-established New York performer making her Marriott debut. She's a straight-up kind of musical-theater actress in a role that could, like this whole production, use a few additional notes of irony and a lean or two in the direction of the off-beat. But Packard cuts a dazzling figure — in pink, navy or whatever she happens to be wearing in the moment — and she has the vocal demands of the show down cold, as well as the choreographic chops to help Robin make her look good. The travails of this character drive the entire show: Ellie is in almost every scene and, in Act 2, sings in every number except the first. That's seven straight ditties. Tough, even for a blonde. Her energy and zest is crucial, and Packard drives all that home admirably, you guys.
When: Through Apr. 1
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $40-$55 at 847-634-0200
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