BWW Reviews: LEGALLY BLONDE Wows Audiences at Woodbury's Arts Center of Cannon County

BWW-Reviews-LEGALLY-BLOND-Wows-Audiences-at-Woodburys-Arts-Center-of-Cannon-County-20010101

Ohmigod…ohmigod, you guys…Elle Woods-the sharp-as-a-tack, pink-clad heroine of movies, musical theater and an MTV reality series-is brought to life in Woodbury in an exuberant, if technically flawed, production of Legally Blonde, The Musical, onstage at The Arts Center of Cannon County through July 21. Directed by Mary Ellen Smith and choreographed by Maggie Richardson, Legally Blonde features a fresh-faced, youthful cast who bring the show's characters to the stage with an exhilarating sense of purpose that succeeds even despite an overly ambitious set design that slows down the plot's pacing.

Led by Lindsay Mapes (whose own blonde beauty and command of the musical theater stage has predestined her to excel in the role that's coveted by young actresses the world over) as Elle, Smith's cast energetically take over the pink, black and white-painted stage to bring the story of the aspiring Harvard law student-who, after a lifetime of California-bred indulgence, aspires to something "so much better"-to life in front of sold-out audiences at ACCC. Eager to please, Smith's troupe of young players display an unbridled enthusiasm as they become the characters we first met in the wildly successful film comedy that was led by Nashville-born and bred Reese Witherspoon.

The musicalization of Legally Blonde, while faithful to its film origins, both condenses and amplifies the story we came to love in the film, and Heather Hach's smart and sharply written book helps to focus even more attention on Elle and her eventual metamorphosis from the golden-tressed Malibu Barbie we first meet to the brainy blonde of the courtroom that we watch her become. The songs-with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Neil Benjamin-move the confectionary tale along its way (some are more successful than others, certainly) with tuneful, hummable compositions that allow Elle and her friends to more easily be brought to life onstage.

Sure, the musical has an effervescent, almost lighter-than-air quality about it-you cannot deny it's like a big ol' puff of pink cotton candy about to send you into a sugar-fed coma-but there's an undeniable sensibility to be found in the show that allows it to shine in all its elucidating promise and which makes Elle a role model for pre-pubescent and adolescent girls and little gay boys since her first appearance on a movie screen. In other words, there is indeed a method to Elle's heartfelt and genuine "madness": There's much more substance to Elle Woods than you might expect after a first, cursory glance.

Act One (which opens with the rousing and spirited "Ohmigod You Guys") tends to move at a treacly pace (due in large part to cumbersome set changes that bring the action to a halt and the presence of stagehands moving set pieces around in full light-WTF?), but Act Two moves along at a very good pace and features the show's best number "There! Right There!" Asking the musical question, "Is he gay or European," the number is enormously engaging, terrifically entertaining and imaginatively staged and delivers a payoff that musical comedy audiences live for…and ensemble members John David Welch, Caleb Marshall and Matt Hunter deliver the goods in roles that could almost be relegated to the after-thought stockpile.

Mapes plays Elle with ample charm leavened by an undertone of seriousness; as a result, the lines she delivers-even the most ridiculously vapid ones-seem borne of truth and a genuineness of spirit that is essential to make Elle both believable and entertaining. Mapes' stage presence is fairly palpable (particularly in her big 11 o'clock number "Legally Blonde"), from the moment we first meet her as she shops for her engagement dinner dress to the end of the show when we see her as a Harvard Law grad destined for greatness in the courtroom (that whole Legally Blonde II debacle notwithstanding).

BWW Reviews: LEGALLY BLONDE Wows Audiences at Woodbury's Arts Center of Cannon County

Mapes is paired with the always impressive Michael Adcock as Warner Huntington IV, whose smarmy charm and prepster slickness provides plenty of laughs in the course of the two-plus hours of musical comedy-fueled onstage fun. Drew Jenkins presents a fine portrait of Emmitt Forrest-the law clerk whose hardscrabble background paints him as the antithesis of the privileged California girl-although I wish his transformative number "Take It Like Man" could have resulted in a bigger reveal.

Allison Barnett very nearly steals the show as Elle's Boston hairdresser/BFF Paulette Bonafante, showing off her strong, soulful voice with confident self-assurance. Barnett's focus and commitment to her role is impressive and she knocks each of her songs right outta the ballpark. Kate Byrd is delightful as the disdainful and snobby Vivienne Kensington (Warner's blueblood fiancée from boarding school), although the wig she wears does nothing for her. Still, Byrd's Vivienne comes from a very real place, eschewing caricature and stereotype in the process of liberating a flesh-and-blood character from her script-bound contrivances.

Among the large supporting cast, David Cummings fares quite well as Professor Callahan; Kerri Kairdolf scores in her role as "Whipped Into Shape" fitness entrepreneur Brooke Wyndham; Rachael E. Parker in a variety of roles that include numerous salesclerks, the prosecuting attorney and Elle's mom; Blair Allison as the unfortunately permed Chutney Wyndham; Lance Chandler as Paulette's UPS guy/crush Kyle (although apparently I haven't been watching the same porn as Mary Ellen Smith!); and Maggie Richardson, Alanna Woodard and Abbey Kairdolf as Elle's Delta Nu sorority sisters and de facto Greek chorus.

Yet despite the winning performances and the goodwill so obvious on display, the production suffers from technical glitches that prove all too distracting. Cody Rutledge's set design is well-conceived but is perhaps too ambitious: It's big and impressive, but unwieldy and cumbersome, making scene changes far too noisy and overly intricate; a less complex set design would work better. Jonathan Higdon's lighting design needs tweaking in order to make the most of what's readily available, while sound issues (no one is credited with sound design in the program) abound. Again, I ask this question: Why in the world is sound design so bad in our corner of the world? It's a problem that afflicts every theater company within 100 miles or so of Music City, where there are experts whose livelihoods depend on mixing good sound. Why, oh why, can't we get some of that expertise inside a theater?

But you know what? Even with those quibbles, Legally Blonde offers audiences a good time, replete with strong performances and the exuberance and exhilaration only possible when you have a cast filled with such youthful vigor bringing a show to the stage for you. And judging from the packed house we witnessed at the performance reviewed, their efforts are paying off in great dividends for ACCC.

> Legally Blonde, The Musical. Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Neil Bergman. Book by Heather Hach. Directed by Mary Ellen Smith. Musical direction by Allison Barnett. Choreography by Maggie Richardson. Presented by The Arts Center of Cannon County in Woodbury. Through July 21. For details, go to www.artscenterofcc.com, or call (615) 563-2787.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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