BWW Review: LEGALLY BLONDE at The Keegan Theatre
Few characters become so embedded in the fabric of pop culture that merely the mention of a color can elicit their memory. Such is the case, however, for Elle Woods, the golden-haired Malibu native at the center of Legally Blonde. Talk about the color pink for too long and someone in your circle is guaranteed to quote one of the now-iconic lines made immortal by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 film. The 2007 Broadway musical burdened its star, Laura Bell Bundy, with the responsibility of carrying on Ms. Witherspoon's legacy while appearing in almost every scene and belting her lungs out. This hot pink explosion of female empowerment and sisterhood is a deceptively demanding production with a non-stop score by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. While the DC premiere at The Keegan Theatre is a fun evening, the overly-choreographed production feels like Elle Woods' first day at Harvard: its trying a little too hard.
For the uninitiated, Legally Blonde begins as Elle Woods (Gabriella DeLuca) is ending her senior year at UCLA. Her 4.0 GPA in Fashion Merchandising, however, is not a "serious" enough accomplishment for her Harvard Law-bound beau Warner Huntington III (Kaylen Morgan) who breaks up with Ms. Woods just as she thinks a proposal is coming her way. To win back her man, Elle gets herself into Harvard where she is befriended by the awkward Emmett Forest (Noah Israel) and hairdresser Paulette (Janine Sunday) while being continuously antagonized by everyone else. Though her natural wit and impressive intellect are commonly overlooked by Warner's new girlfriend, Vivienne (Rachel Barlaam), and her demanding teacher, Professor Callahan (a superb Greg Watkins), Elle demonstrates that her ability to get ahead comes from more than just her "genetic lotto win."
Gabriella is a strong Elle, serving up solid vocals and tight dance moves, but there is a stiffness to her whenever interacting with her love interests. Most of the blame for this awkwardness falls to director Ricky Drummond, whose blocking leaves Elle looking at almost anything but her man during the most poignant moments. There's a more dependable ease to Elle's scenes with Paulette or the "greek chorus" of sorority sisters that populate the show's larger numbers. The lacking romantic tension, however, did not have any effect on Gabriella's performance during the title song. Ms. DeLuca's rendition of "Legally Blonde" is so emotionally raw that you can't help but tear up. In her hands, this number that normally slows the pace of the second act is a welcome addition that reveals emotional complexity not seen in the show's earlier moments.
The classmates and professors that surround Elle are not written as compellingly, but still help keep Legally Blonde's party vibe going. A particular stand-out, Greg Watkins practically oozes slime as the lecherous Professor Callahan. His solo number "Blood in the Water," normally a throw-away introductory song, was a certifiable showstopper thanks to Mr. Watkins. The other men in Elle's life, Warner and Emmett, fizzle in this production. As Warner, Kaylen Morgan seems almost too likable. Even while dumping Elle, his insulting insinuation that she would never be more than a blonde bombshell (a "Marilyn" in his terms) is so tentative that her flying across the nation to prove him wrong seems out of place. Meanwhile, Noah Israel's performance as Emmett is so mousy (even after his makeover during "Take It Like a Man") that his chemistry with Elle is marred in social awkwardness.
Many moments that come across as disjointed are due to a series of overly-complicated numbers choreographed by Ashleigh King. There are several dances that work really well during Legally Blonde, including the notoriously difficult "Whipped Into Shape" that requires the company to dance while jump roping perfectly in unison and never faltering (a task they did quite well). Unfortunately, these moments of brilliance are far outnumbered by confusing dance breaks that often take away from, rather than add to, the action onstage. Most notably, a pair of dancers that interpret a story of Paulette's past love during her solo, "Ireland," detract from the emotional resonance of that number. Even during Elle's act one finale, "So Much Better," the entire company dances out overly-complicated steps that make it hard to focus on Ms. DeLuca. The whole performance drips with hairography that is often so complex that the actors visibly seem to be concentrating on their next steps, rather than their characters, during many of Ms. King's dance breaks.
The Keegan has assembled a wonderful technical team that make good use of their intimate space for Legally Blonde. Matthew J. Keenan's bubblegum-pink sorority house facade serviceably transforms into the hallowed halls of Harvard Law thanks to some assistance from lighting designer Jason Arnold. More shades of pink than possibly imaginable have been assembled by Alison Samantha Johnson, whose costumes all coordinate well without ever feeling repetitive. Combating the nine-piece band led strongly by Walter "Bobby" McCoy is a difficult task for Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Thankfully, Gordon's sound design is strong enough to ensure the actors are all heard even when horns are blaring and everyone is at full volume.
It is very easy to make a production of Legally Blonde fun. Besides pink, fun is probably the safest word to describe this show. Even with technical flaws along the way, the company assembled for this production is severely committed to making every line, step, and note the best it can possibly be. For those who have never seen the musical adaptation of this beloved movie, The Keegan Theatre is a reliable introduction. After all, we could all use a little bit of life advice from Elle Woods now again.
Legally Blonde is playing at The Keegan Theatre (1742 Church Street, NW) through September 8. Tickets range from $36-$58. For tickets and information click here.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for The Shakespeare Theatre Company as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
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