Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Legally Blonde, PlayhouseSquare

(Becky Gulsvig as Elle Woods, and Frankie as her puppy pal Bruiser)

So if you had to choose, whom would you think would make a better role model for teenage girls: Elle Woods, the kinda ditzy lead character in the frothy, pink-saturated musical Legally Blonde, or recent Republican candidate for Vice President, Sarah Palin? If you were from Mars you’d suppose that, of course, the VP nominee would be a much more thoughtful and capable heroine for young females. Well, guess again.

In this sugary confection that has landed on the PlayhouseSquare Palace Theatre stage, Ms. Woods is a joyously superficial collection of Valley Girl mannerisms and traditional girlish dreams (to wit, marrying her college dream-hunk boyfriend). But once she follows him to Harvard Law School after he drops her, she is called upon to actually use her brain, speak in diagrammable declarative sentences, and succeed on her own merits. These are standards of achievement that Ms. Palin never even approached in her two months of notoriety.

This musical—with music by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and a book by Heather Hach—is a spin-off of the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie of the same name. And it faithfully traces the journey of Elle from fizzy Delta Nu sorority girl in California to becoming another lawyer-in-training in Boston. Fighting to win back her ex-boyfriend Warner, she uses her feminine wiles (and an intimate knowledge of perms) to win a high-profile courtroom trial and put all the doubters to shame.

All this requires a suspension of disbelief that's plenty hard to swallow. But the engaging, if forgettable, score and some witty lines help it all glide down smoothly. Thanks to a spirited Greek Chorus of sorority gals that shows up to cheer Elle on, and a Boston beautician named Paulette (an excellent Natalie Joy Johnson, who creates the only remotely believable character), this production is as sweet and bright as a wad of Double Bubble gum. And just as filling.

In the lead role of Elle, Becky Gulsvig is a blonde force field of energy, nailing her songs and dances with professional aplomb. But this is a starring role begging for a dash of personality, some endearing quirks or eccentricities, and on that score Gulsvig doesn’t deliver, always coloring her character inside the lines instead of taking comedic chances. The same is true of D.B. Bonds, who plays the ordinary law school schlub Emmett who gradually falls for Elle.

Secondary roles are handled well, although some of the material feels secondhand. As Elle’s snarky law prof, Ken Land is saddled with the song “Blood in the Water,” a poor man’s version of the hilariously nasty “Don’t Be the Bunny” from Urinetown. And a parody of Riverdance in the second act, starring Paulette and her UPS delivery-stud Kyle (a sexually unambiguous Ven Daniel) is over before it really generates any real laughs.

The stage set seems Recession-era downscale, with a hazy sky backdrop that is multi-tasked to represent both coasts. But if you don’t pay too close attention and accept it all for the cotton candy it is, this Blonde can make you forget the status of your 401k for a day. All right, for a couple hours.

Legally Blonde
Through November 23 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,
1518 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,

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