BWW Review: Stage Manager and Tech Crew Are the Stars of the LOLHS Production of LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL
"To thine own self be true." --Polonius in 'Hamlet'
"Being true to yourself never goes out of style." --Vivienne in LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL
Ms. Sabrina Hydes loves musical theatre so much that she wants nothing more than to share her love with the lucky students of Land O' Lakes High School. She may be a Learning Design Coach, but once a year, for every day after school, she joins the fine LOLHS theatre department and leads dozens and dozens of students on a journey of a lifetime. She started directing the school musicals two years ago with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and followed that up last year with Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights. But no mountain is too high for Ms. Hydes to climb, no show too difficult to mount. Since last August, she and her students have been rehearsing, singing, staging, obsessing, and building the sets for a popular, but surprisingly difficult show: LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL (music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin; book by Heather Hach).
I received the email from Ms. Hydes last December. She had so much faith in her students, so much pride, that she wanted me to review their show. She knows that, as a reviewer, I am fair, nice, but very, very honest, and sometimes young performers aren't prepared to handle the truth (not just students, but community theatre actors and even some professional ones). But she was so excited, enthusiastic, and confident for the world to see what her kids could do. So, I agreed to review her production.
I'm mighty glad that I did.
First, let me give a huge shout out to Ms. Hydes and her co-director, Ariana Venditti. Their cast and tech list in the program was filled with so many names, so many students, that it read like a James Joyce novel. This is awesome to behold. All of those students whose lives will be changed for good thanks to the performing arts. As I watched the musical about blonde Elle Woods' rollercoaster ride through Harvard Law School, I saw so many kids who now have that look--the magic touch of the performing arts, the start of a life onstage and backstage. After working on this show, how many of them now want to attend law school like Elle Woods? And how many of them now want to dive into a life in the theatre?
If you want to see why the performing arts are so important in public education, then I hope you got to see the LOLHS production of LEGALLY BLONDE at the Wesley Chapel Center for the Arts on January 16th, 17th and 18th. It was far from a perfect production--there was some messiness, some pitchy vocals, and some performances much stronger than others--but the overall show was an incredibly moving experience.
This production contained something I don't know if I have seen before: During the curtain call, the tech crew got the final bow. Usually the crew comes on first and the leading actors last, but not with this incredible LOLHS group. This seems appropriate since I wrote in my notebook halfway through the show: "The real star here is the tech crew." Reading that will give you no indication of the awesome work that this specific crew--well over thirty kids--accomplished. There were so many large set pieces that had to be moved on and off the stage, and it all had to seem effortless. It was glorious to watch. Set pieces coming in and out, the tech crew briskly walking onstage to remove another piece, all with the precision of a Rube Goldberg contraption. If one member of the tech crew was off, then the whole show would crumble. But they've been taught well. Imagine an oversized chess board fully alive, with the pieces constantly in motion, and you will get an idea of the strong tech work in this production.
After the show, I asked the director the name of the stage manager. Whether the SM knows it or not, the success and failure of this particular show rested solely in her hands. Her name is Kristen "KJ" Engasser, and I am told that she wants to pull an Elle Woods and attend Harvard next year. Judging from her work here, she can do anything she wants. If she wants to go into medicine or psychology, then I have no doubt that she will be the best doctor. And if she wants to dive into the world of theatre, especially stage management (where there is always work), then the theatre gods will be smiling.
I hope I don't miss any names, but I need to single out this awesome tech crew. Aside from assistant stage managers Autumn Cole, Sierra Black and Maxwell Allen, you have the following students: Arossa Adhikary, Emily MacDonald, Layla Williams, Camille Henry, Lu Bickerton, Ewan Wanamaker, Josie Linares, Carl Savino, Joseff Latras, Joshua Gove, Lucas Salas, Matthew Mafla, Maxwell Taylor, Sanya Senthilkumar, Kennedy Engasser, Kris Barkley, Erin Roberts, Grace Connoy, Dominic Vinditti and Gloria Ogbekhilu. The lighting and sound crew included Aiden DeGuire, Kaitlyn Bost, Loretta Thompson, Braeden Kirby, Ridley Wanamaker, and Thomas Dunn. Whew, snaps to all of you!
The performances were all over the place. As the iconic pink-donning blonde Elle Woods, Alexandra Gonzalez took some time to warm to, but you really sensed her coming into her own as the performance went on. She carried the show with such a large role, certainly capturing the spunk and energy of Elle, and I found myself rooting for her. Hunter Barber was a likable Emmett, Elle's law school companion. And the awesomely talented Isabella Talero stole the entire show as Paulette, the hairstylist who gets her man due to the bend and snap.
Jolie Linares is marvelously energetic as Brooke, and proves how difficult it is to sing and jumprope at the same time in "Whipped into Shape" (you could hear her catching her breath at the end of the number). Charlotte Rawlins is a real standout as Serena; she really struts her stuff in "Bend and Snap." Connor Costello showcases a deep voice and so much promise as Elle's Dad. Andrew Freire could sing and dance and really stood out in some of the larger choreographed numbers. Alex Chowning made the most of his role as Winthrop, though I would like to see him facially react even more before he decides to accept Elle into Harvard.
One of my favorites in the cast was James Kawa, who delightfully shows no shame on the stage. He jumped into each of his numbers with so much verve and aplomb. There is a natural goofy humor to him, and comedy is something he may want to pursue. At times he reminded me of a young Jim Carrey.
The rest of the cast included Steven Freire, Lauren Richard, Michael Lilov, Amelie Wanamaker, Jada Wells, Kelsey Lopez, Gyllian Ervin, Emma Campbell, Ariana Quiles, Jason Campbell, Analisa Martin Nathan Gibson, Madison Marsh, Avery Bixler, and Jack Olson. Jackie Mafla made for an attitudinal Chutney. Gabriella Hernandez was a standout in the ensemble. Stephen Koenig was a strutting hoot onstage, marvelously milking his moments, and Raina Mayerschoff and Ashley Johnson were fun to watch in a variety of roles.
I would be remiss not to mention the canine companion cast members that play such an important part of this show: Buckeye Brown as Bruiser, Elle's dog, and Optimus Venditti as Rufus, Paulette's pup. I'm so glad they used real dogs in the production, and both paw-pals stole the show whenever they appeared. They certainly earned their awww's from the audience.
As a musical, LEGALLY BLONDE has its high points ("Whipped Into Shape," "Take It Like a Man," "Bend and Snap") and its low (most of Act 1). This production boasted some fine singers and some that were off the charts in the other direction. Some of the cast members needed more confidence, that sense of stage ownership, while other commanded our attention. There were some mic issues, but most of the kids who didn't wear microphones could be heard. Sometimes some of the lines got lost in the shuffle due to enunciation issues and losing the ends of lines; sometimes student actors just need to sloooooow down.
The choreography by Amelie Wanamaker was fun and messy, but in a show like LEGALLY BLONDE, fun and messy work just fine.
There is a moment I do want to pinpoint. An actor missed his entrance, and the performers onstage (including the lead, Alexandra Gonzalez) had to keep the scene moving. Improv is a life saver in nightmarish moments like this. The girls did well in not letting the show stop dead in its tracks. I noticed it, but the people in front of me did not (I asked). This is a testament to the actresses who kept the scene moving until the actor made his late but much-welcomed entrance. Yep, there is nothing like live theatre.
Directors Sabrina Hydes and Arianna Venditti have so many reasons to be proud with this production. Think of the lives they have affected with each of their performances--not just those in the cast, and not just those backstage, but those in the audience, friends and family members alike, who may see their sons, daughters or peers in a completely different light. Shows like this are life-changing events.
Before this production, so often the tech workers are neglected, even when we review. In Thespians, there are so many performance events, and not nearly as many tech. And yet those who concentrate in tech in theatre have a great chance of being employed if they choose this as a career. With LOLHS' LEGALLY BLONDE: THE MUSICAL, the tech crew should be treated like rock stars. And the whole thing concluded with a happy ending both for Elle and for the production itself. Elle would graduate Harvard Law School and get her man, Emmett. As for the LOLHS production, it ended with a rousing standing ovation, and there's nothing better than that.