nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 3, 2007
The new Broadway musical Legally Blonde, based on a novel and a popular film, tells the story of Elle Woods, a beautiful, wealthy woman from Malibu, California, who, when we first meet her, is in her senior year at UCLA, waiting for her handsome, wealthy boyfriend Warner Huntington III to propose to her. In Act I, Scene 2, Warner instead dumps her because she's not serious enough for him; he views himself as a budding Jack Kennedy, you see, and he needs a "Jackie" rather than a "Marilyn."
Determined not to be cast aside, Elle decides to follow Warner to Harvard Law School, where she will win him back on his own turf and terms. So she bones up (in a long musical number in Act I, Scene 3) to the point where she is able to get a 175 on her LSAT (180 is a perfect score). In the same Scene, she brings the UCLA cheerleading squad to Harvard's admission office, performing a song in place of the required personal essay, and she's admitted to the school. (It's clear that the three male admissions officers think she's cute.) By Scene 5, she's arrived at Harvard and been tossed out of Professor Callahan's Criminal Law 101 class because she hasn't read the assignment (plus she's taking notes on a big pink heart-shaped pad rather than on a laptop like everyone else).
In Scene 7, Warner's snooty new girlfriend Vivienne Kensington, another Harvard Law School student, invites Elle to her "costume party." Elle takes the advice of her new friend, a hairdresser named Paulette who lives in a trailer, and dresses up as a Playboy Bunny. But of course, it's not a costume party at all, and so Elle makes a fool of herself. Discouraged, she's about to quit when Emmett Forrest, the cute but poor assistant to Professor Callahan, decides to help her improve her academic performance. (He starts by taking the plastic wrap off of one of her law books.) In Act I, Scenes 9 through 11, Elle progresses from Class Joke to one of the coveted slots as Callahan's intern (he is apparently also a partner in a high-powered law firm).
In between, Elle and Emmett throw their legal weight around to scare Paulette's ex-boyfriend into relinquishing her bulldog Rufus back into her custody.
Act 2 progresses pretty much along the same lines. Beautiful, wealthy Elle triumphs as Callahan's intern, faces some momentary adversity, and then is coached back into realizing her true potential to become class valedictorian. She buys Emmett a power suit at a department store (a place he's apparently never been to before) and teaches him, in Scene 2, that the way one dresses is the most important aspect of achieving success. She also finds time, in Scene 3, to coach Paulette in the "Bend and Snap," a sexy bend-over maneuver that UCLA cheerleaders use to make sure men pay attention to them. (Paulette wins the heart of a hunky UPS driver this way.) And, in Scene 4, Elle teaches EVERYBODY how to spot a gay man (though a certain amount of ambiguity is introduced when it is noted that European men look pretty much the same as gay men).
It's possible to watch all of this foolishness without thinking hard about what it actually signifies, I suppose, and if you're able to do so then Legally Blonde may feel like harmless fun. I found it impossible not to focus, constantly, on the insidious messages being transmitted: that rich white people can do or have whatever they want, as long as they have enough cash and dress well; that blue collar workers live in trailers, are ignorant, and are fit only to wed one another; that gay people all dress a certain way (gay men are elegant and effete; lesbians are sloppy and mannish—the one lesbian character in the story bears this out); that women can succeed only through their looks and sex appeal; that gay people are oversexed; that brown people are interchangeable figures of derision (I haven't mentioned yet that in Act I there's a law student named Sandeep Padamadan and in Act II there's a gay poolboy named Nikos "Something"-tacos (sorry, his full name isn't in the Playbill); both are played by an actor named Manuel Herrera and both their names get big laughs when they're first uttered because foreign names are so darned funny, aren't they?)
A great many people are responsible for Legally Blonde, including Jerry Mitchell, the show's director/choreographer, who supplies little in the way of exciting dancing here; book writer Heather Hach and score authors Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin; and no fewer than 16 producers: all of them should be ashamed of themselves for letting this show, which could have been either authentic fluff or provocative satire, instead reflect so complacently the dire status quo of our America first/Me first post-Bush polity.
I will pause to acknowledge two fine performances sandwiched inside this show: Orfeh (Paulette) and Andy Karl (the UPS guy) each get a moment to show off their distinctive talents here (in her case, a powerhouse voice; in his, limber, long-legged dancing). They provide momentary pleasure in an otherwise depressing and shrill evening of theatre know-how doing its very worst.