BWW Reviews: Keeton Theatre's LEGALLY BLONDE Is As Good As It Gets
"Ohmigod, ohmigod you guys," if there is a more infectious, more outrageously fun opening number from a recent Broadway musical than the one that energetically raises the roof (and the curtain) on Legally Blonde, the Musical, I'm loath to recall it (quite possibly because of the earworm that now plays the song on an endless loop in my head). Truth be told, I wouldn't necessarily mind watching The Keeton Theatre's enthusiastic cast performing the song over and over-their performance, staged and choreographed by Kate Adams and set to the music from Ginger Newman's four-member band, is so ridiculously good that I wouldn't mind a return trip to the confectionary pink world of Elle Woods and company.
Legally Blonde, the Musical is as tuneful and entertaining as any musical could ever hope to be, and while the story seems lighthearted and fun, there's a definite message to be found in Heather Hach's book and the music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Neil Benjamin. Under Adams' laser-sharp direction-that itself is filled with a lot of heart and her unerring attention to detail-The Keeton Theatre's cast offers up a production of the show that's as good as it gets.
In addition to Adams and Newman, credit is due Jim Manning for his clever and colorful set design, to Laura Higgins for her spot-on and fashionable costume design, Kelly Landry for her terrific lighting for the quick-moving spectacle and to Joel Bruce whose sound design is flawless. And kudos to David Y. Williams, who shares choreographic responsibilities with Adams, and to the members of Newman's band: Lee Druce, Bob Marinelli, Ed Greene and Dan Hagen.
Led by the impossibly talented Taylor Tracey as Elle, the Keeton cast is filled to overflowing with talent, verve and style, with nary a weak link to be found in the ensemble. The play's action moves along at a terrific pace, the show's songs ushering us along on Elle's adventurous journey as she morphs from UCLA fraternity sweetheart to Harvard Law School's bright, shining academic star. As farfetched as it sounds, the effervescent Legally Blonde is grounded in a very real sense of purpose, as Elle makes the incredible transformation from a vacuous airhead who lives to shop to an intelligent woman brimming over with ambition and a zeal for helping the underdog.
It's easy to cast off Legally Blonde, the Musical as just a fluffy, puffy pink piece of musical cotton candy, but perhaps it might best be described thusly: a high-calorie milkshake made with a scoop of protein powder to give it some nutritional heft. It's delicious and decadent, but there's some stuff mixed in that's good for you. As raucously funny and outlandish as Legally Blonde is, the message is deeper and far more sincere than you would expect. And that's why only really cold-hearted theater-goers won't love this high-flying, tremendously affectionate and winning romp. Otherwise, you'll be smitten! Ohmigod.
The aforementioned opening number is high-spirited and so freakin' much fun, with Adams and Williams' choreography perfectly capturing the over-the-top sense of sisterhood exemplified by Elle and her Delta Nu comrades. In fact, the show's score is sure to grow on you: "The Harvard Variations" is cleverly plotted, "So Much Better" is a victorious anthem for our times, "Whipped Into Shape" will give you a workout, "Bend and Snap" perfectly captures one of the original film's most iconic moments and "Legally Blonde" is a sentimental ballad that is certain to pack an emotional wallop. And songs like "Blood in the Water" and "Gay or European" are big ensemble numbers that echo the very best to be found in all of musical theater, the uniquely American art form that we all love.
Essential to the show's success is finding an actress to play Elle who defines the term "triple threat" and in Tracey, who's making her Nashville stage debut (save for a number from the show she performed at The First Night Honors), Adams has struck gold. Tracey's confident performance is, quite frankly, startling and completely captivating. It's hard to take your eyes off her as she strides across the stage with a sense of purpose, singing all of Elle's signature songs with her gorgeous voice, leading the ensemble in Adams' choreography with stylish skill and delivering her book scenes with consistency and warmth. To say Tracey has stage presence is an understatement; she has PRESENCE-writ across the sky in giant, capital letters.
Her onstage pairing with Stephen Michael Jones (as Harvard law grad Emmett) fairly crackles with intensity, so evident is their shared chemistry, and the two play off each other with a sense of timing that is exhilaratinG. Jones, who has made quite the name for himself on local stages in the past several months, shows off a heretofore untapped maturity as Emmett and his duet with Tracey on "Legally Blonde" resonates with romantic devotion. Jones and Tracey shine in "Take It Like A Man," in which Elle takes Emmett shopping for a fashion makeover-ensuring that the number comes off just as its creators must have intended.
The rest of the show's large ensemble is just as impressive (seriously, try as I might, I can't think of anyone who didn't go above and beyond the call of duty in this artfully conceived production) as the show's leads. Britt Byrd is icily bitchy as Vivienne, Elle's preppy rival for college boyfriend Warner Huntington III (played with smarmy charm by the versatile Darin Richardson, adding another strong credit to his already burgeoning resume), effectively transforming into her ally when all the cards are on the table. Byrd shows off her own mad musical theater skills in the process-and her scenes with Tracey fairly drip with deliciously vile condescension and disdain.
Jamie London is delightful as Elle's manicurist cum confidante, delivering her lines with a comic ferocity that brings to mind memories of Sally Struthers' Babette on The Gilmore Girls. Her "Ireland" is sweetly heartfelt and her scenes with the altogether handsome, sexy and charming Trey Palmer as Kyle (he's the UPS guy described as "walking porn") offer further examples of Adams' on-target casting skills. David Arnold is superbly icky as Elle's slickly officious professor Callahan, and Sims Lamason is an impressive Brooke Wyndham, performing the never-say-die "Whipped Into Shape" with verve and stamina.
And if there is a threat to Tracey's total control of the stage, the honor would have to go to the three young women playing Elle's best pals from UCLA-who take the form of a Greek chorus of sorts to take us inside Elle's brain-Stephanie Brooks, Julia Nettles and Rae Robeson. Brooks, Nettles and Robeson give consistently high-spirited performances that somehow remain very believable and genuine. They sing, they dance, they act-they deliver some of the most groaningly bad punchlines to be found in Heather Hach's sharply written script with unwavering timing-they knock your socks off…
Tony Nappo and a baton-twirling Cary Street are delightful as Elle's golfing and cocktailing Malibu parents, Cat Arnold is convincing as D.A. Joyce Riley, and the rest of the company provide credible support throughout the musical's many scenes, playing everyone from Elle's Delta Nu tribe to her law school classmates. And stealing every scene in which they appear, Emma Freeman (as Bruiser Woods) and Kenni Palmer (as Rufus) prove that W.C. Fields' advice to steer clear of cute and furry animals onstage is indeed timeless. They will win your hearts for sure.
- Legally Blonde, The Musical. Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Neil Benjamin. Book by Heather Hach. Directed by Kate Adams. Musical direction by Ginger Newman. Choreography by Kate Adams and David Y. Williams. Presented by The Larry Keeton Theatre, 108 Donelson Pike, Nashville. Through September 29. For details, go to www.thelarrykeetontheatre.com; call (615) 883-8375 for reservations.