Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Did you hear the one about the blonde who went to law school?

By Josh R
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury…

Before hearing evidence in the matter of Legally Blonde vs. The Court of Public Opinion, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a few opening statements. It is true that we live in fractious, divided times. Despite the heroic efforts of my colleague, Mr. Edward Copeland, there are many denizens of cyberspace who will never have occasion, or the inclination, to seek out an inaccurately named blog with several voices and looks at TV, theater, books and music as well (at this point, we would like to enter Edward Copeland on Film into evidence as Exhibit A).

The reasons for this are two-fold. In the first place, some people just have no taste. Secondly, there are many who, for reasons that remain inexplicable to me, would rather spend the hours they log in front of the monitor seeking out baseball scores, trolling for porn or engaging in spirited chat room debate centered around the latest ejection from American Idol. These people have about as much vested interest in the fate of a Broadway musical as I do in whether or not Barry Bonds has enough human growth hormone coursing through his veins to give Shamu a heart attack. We are a country divided by values, interests, and conflicting notions of what is important.

Enough is enough…let us put an end to this discouraging trend of cultural divergence! The time has come for us, as a people, to find common ground, and embrace the simple truth that the things that unite as are far greater than those which divide us. In spite of our seeming incompatibility, we all have one glorious thing in common: We all love watching other people fail.

Oh, c’mon, you know it’s true. What sports fan doesn’t chuckle malevolently when the opposing team gets routed, to the tune of an embarrassingly lopsided scoreline? Who doesn’t chortle with glee at the ongoing trials of Britney Spears, whose increasingly bizarre lapses in sanity seem specifically engineered to make Liza Minnelli seem like a functional human being in comparison? Who doesn’t love a train wreck? (At this point, we would like to enter the mere existence of The Razzie Awards — and indeed, the entire film career of Pia Zadora, such as it is — into evidence as Exhibit B.)

And so it is on Broadway, where the arrival of a genuine, cubic-zirconia-studded disaster is greeted with about as much enthusiasm by the New York drama critics as a visit from St. Nick. When it was announced that a musicalization of the featherbrained popcorn movie Legally Blonde was Broadway bound, a sense of craven, bloodthirsty anticipation pervaded the air. You could practically hear the knives being sharpened.

Well, the knives are going to have to go back into their sheaths, at least for now. As a card-carrying member of the cult of disaster, it is with regret I must report that there is more that is right than is wrong with Legally Blonde, the enjoyably silly new musical currently in previews at The Palace Theatre. Frivolous though it may be, it keeps its platinum-highlighted head on its shoulders even when playing it dumb.

By now, everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past several years is familiar with the story of the smart-dumb-blonde Elle Woods, a sort of latter-day Private Benjamin who becomes an unlikely success in the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School. The 2001 film version, which catapulted Reese Witherspoon onto the A-List while grossing more than $100 million in the process, caught the public’s attention by offering a dippy new twist on the classic tale of the underdog. Elle Woods — sorority sweetheart, homecoming queen, and the living embodiment of the MTV Barbie Doll fantasy tragically misguided teenage girls eagerly aspire to — is a born winner who winds up on the losing end of the stick. Shunned by her callow boyfriend, who doesn’t take her seriously enough to regard her as marriage material, she has to learn to retool her act, find her inner brainiac, and prove to all the doubters that she has what it takes to be more than just a cutie-pie with great fashion sense, a killer bod and follicular flair.

The Broadway incarnation is reasonably faithful to the template, with the same superficially amusing qualities that made the film such agreeably diverting fluff. It is by no stretch of the imagination the most interesting, adventurous or innovative show on the boards right now — in the musical category, one need look no further than Spring Awakening or Grey Gardens for evidence of that. But it preserves — and in some instances, actually improves upon — the qualities that made the original click, and there’s no law that says a show needs to be bold, challenging, or even particularly smart, in order to be good. Broadway’s Legally Blonde is the theatrical equivalent of a 20-foot miniature of the Statue of Liberty made entirely out of pink-frosted cupcakes — it’s definitely not art, but has an ersatz charm that will leave you with a stupid, silly grin on your face even if you can’t help feeling that your inner aesthete ought to know better. Entertainment value, in and of itself, is just as valuable a commodity as anything else the theater has to offer, and with all due respect to Spring and Gardens — better shows, overall — I’m guessing this crowd-pleasing confection is the one that audiences have truly been waiting for.

The process of bringing a new musical to Broadway is a treacherous journey, and the producers might have hedged their bets by contracting a commercially viable star to bolster ticket sales against the possibility of negative reviews (Exhibit C: The Boy from Oz, starring Hugh Jackman). Asking the role’s originator to reprise her pre-Oscar-winning performance might have been reaching for the stars, but they certainly could have gotten a Hilary Duff, or even (God forbid) a Jessica Simpson if they’d been willing to pony up the cash. Instead, they decided to risk it all on Laura Bell Bundy, a virtual unknown whose biggest previous credit was creating the role of teen villainess Amber von Tussle in the original cast of Hairspray. In that performance, there was nothing to suggest a presence dynamic or distinctive enough to build an entire show around; in all fairness, short of being Carol Channing, you’d need to brandish a scimitar onstage to avoid being bullied into the background by Hairspray’s collection of scene-stealers.

Anyone who feared that Ms. Bundy wouldn’t be equal to the task of carrying a show can stop worrying...the hunch has paid off. She is charming, funny and, as luck would have it, a good actress, putting her own stamp on the role while investing it with more depth of feeling than it probably required. Bundy tempers Elle’s unflappable perkiness with a wistful, goofy sweetness — even decked out in Paris Hilton’s wardrobe, she’s still wholesome enough to qualify as the girl next door (albeit one who lives next door to the Spellings). The show’s creators have made the character’s development somewhat more convincing — in the film, it was never clear what Elle responded to in the study of law that she couldn’t just as easily have gotten from going to med school, becoming a nuclear physicist or branding her own line of hair care products. Here as in the movie, she comes into her own as a confident, independent woman who the commands respect of others, but she’s also finding a genuine sense of purpose in becoming a lawyer. Being written off as a just another dumb blonde heightens her awareness of the injustices that exist in the world at large — injustices which she has the power to correct (even though the wrong to be righted may be something as trivial as helping a pet-lover regain custody of her pug). Of course, I could have done without the tepidly inspirational ballad in which Elle tells us how much she’s grown, but I suppose in the age of Wicked, songs like that — and the one in which all the female characters convene for a peppy anthem celebrating Girl Power — are to be regarded as inevitable. I object!

Given these quibbles, I suppose now is as good a time as any to put on my stern professor hat. Book writer Heather Hach goes in for a lot of obvious jokes, some too much so for my taste — in that respect, her libretto functions more or less on the same level as the screenplay on which it's based. The score, by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, consists mainly of the sort of generic pop that can be heard in any one of a dozen Broadway tuners of the last five years (one glorious exception is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan inspired patter number in which an entire courtroom stops to ponder whether a witness is “Gay or European”). There are a few sequences that feel like tired recapitulations of things you've seen in other shows, and others in which the silliness is overemphasized. Even in a musical that strives for irreverence, the bouncy production number in which fitness guru/alleged husband-killer Brooke Wyndham (Nikki Snelson) leads the orange-jumpsuit-clad inmate population of a women’s correctional facility in a high-octane, rope-jumping workout session is too dopey by half. Apart from occasional lapses such as these, the production rarely lags, and director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps things moving along at a breezy clip. It’s too bad there isn’t a Tony Award for best employment of a golf cart in a dance sequence — he’d win in a landslide.

One of the best decisions the creative team made was to bulk up the role of Emmett, Elle’s new love interest; the creators take the time to develop an odd-couple relationship which evolves convincingly from tentative friendship into a pairing with real chemistry (as played by Luke Wilson in the film version, the character registered as little more than a handsome afterthought in a corduroy jacket). Christian Borle, an engaging performer with comically outsized features and an impish grin, makes a nice foil for Elle’s flightiness, grounding her in the realities of being a law student just as she induces him to come out of his shaggy shell — he goads her into hitting the books, she drags him to the men’s department for a new wardrobe. As the lovelorn beautician who serves as the heroine’s confidante, Orfeh can’t really match the divine weirdness of Jennifer Coolidge, the screen comedienne who always comes across as some kind of dazed visitor from another planet; nevertheless, she scores with a daffy ballad about how listening to Irish muzak stimulates her daydreams, and her side-splittingly inept interactions with a studly UPS deliveryman (Andy Karl), who struts the stage like a Chippendales dancer, make her a clear audience favorite. A trio of sorority sisters (Leslie Kritzer, DeQuina More, Annaleigh Ashford) serving as a traveling Greek chorus would steal just about every scene they were in if Bundy weren’t on her game — even if the gimmick is overused. The other principals — Richard H. Blake as the self-infatuated heartthrob who sets the story in motion by breaking Elle’s heart, Kate Shindle as his upper-crusty new girlfriend, and Michael Rupert as a smarmy professor — lend solid support. The energetic ensemble — which includes two performers of the canine variety — seems to be enjoying itself, and the audience plays right into their hands.

Audience response, it should be noted, is not an automatic guarantee of success…this is Broadway after all, not the multiplex. An infamously cranky jury of professional theater critics has yet to weigh in, and it is their verdict that will determine the show’s ultimate fate. Somehow, I suspect this blonde will emerge unscathed — if you can make it through Harvard Law, you can survive just about anything, and Ms. Woods is making a pretty good case for herself as The Girl Most Likely to Succeed. Case dismissed!

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Now this sounds more like something I'd spend $100 on than that 8-1/2 hour Stoppard trilogy ("Two Z's up!" -Martha Stewart). There's no accounting for taste, I suppose. If the only guilt I'll feel watching Legally Blonde: The Musical will come from my inner aesthete, I have nothing to worry about; I don't have one of those.

You're right about Jennifer Coolidge being from another world. She is funny but she's got that Jennifer Tilly creepy factor--they're the ta-ta twins of terror.

A better Exhibit C would have been that Julia Roberts show, not the Boy From Oz. At least Wolverine was great in that, and he finally made me understand why Liza Minelli's gaydar wasn't working the day she met Peter Allen. (Her gaydar works almost as well as my blind left eye.)

We all love watching other people fail.

Avenue Q has a great song about that!

Speaking of musicals, I think you should write "Edward Copeland: The Musical, an inaccurately named musical with several voices singing." Or maybe Hello, Eddie, starring Carol "I scare the shit outta Odie" Channing, Mr. Copeland and Cuba Gooding Jr as me. Can you sing, EC?
You don't want to hear me sing, trust me. If he can sing and do an American accent, I think Stephen Fry should play me. I will insist that the opening number be titled "This Musical Was Not Adapted From a Movie."
I would be happy to endorse "Copeland: The Musical", provided that I am allowed to play myself. I can't think of anyone else who could do me justice, although I'll accept Adam Brody as a standby. I will not share a dressing room.
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