"Legally Blonde the Musical" was Broadway's answer to the blockbuster known as "Wicked." If green girl power could sell out houses all over the world, then just think what a pink-clad blond lawyer could do to empower women everywhere!
There's just one problem with that idea. "Wicked" had all the "Wizard of Oz" mythology to draw from, while "Legally Blonde" had a mostly forgotten novel by Amanda Brown and the 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon, which is not exactly an abundance of riches. And "Wicked" had composer Stephen Schwartz (not even at his best), while "Blonde" had composer/lyricists Laurence O'Keefe ("Bat Boy") and his wife, Nell Benjamin.
The musical version of "Legally Blonde" debuted in San Francisco for its pre-Broadway run in 2007, opening just a few months later on Broadway, where it ran for more than a year and inspired an MTV reality show to find a replacement star.
The pink "Wicked," as I like to think of "Blonde," never quite caught fire or became the theatrical mom-and-daughter experience the producers seemed to be going for. Little girls certainly liked all the pink, and the squealing sorority girls had their appeal, as did the Chihuahua and the bulldog. But in the end, "Legally Blonde" was Broadway fast food: slick, temporarily satisfying and a little guilt-inducing.
Now "Blonde" is spreading its patronizing feel-good energy in community theaters around the country. Outside of the highly efficient Broadway machinery of the original production, how does the show hold up?
The answer, at least on the evidence of the remarkably efficient Palo Alto Players production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, is that it does and it doesn't. Minus all the Broadway glitz and a giant set that never seemed to stop moving, the first act of "Blonde" has a whole lot more heart. Set designer Patrick Klein makes some ingenious choices to keep the show moving. For instance, rather than build a clunky sorority house set for the opening number, "Omigod You Guys," he just has the sorority sisters bouncing around giant Delta Nu letters. Or when the action shifts to a clothing boutique, the set is dominated by a giant, elegantly draped padded hanger. The action moves swiftly in this show, and though it has more locations than it really needs, Klein's designs help keep the show moving in creative ways.
Director Daniel Demers is equally efficient in keeping the pace swift and the energy high: If either lags, the show crumbles under the weight of its silliness. Demers' winning cast of 27 seems to understand this, so they all zip through the show's two-and-a-half hours at a breakneck speed.
Highlights of Act 1 include the opening number with its unforgiving "omigod you guys" earworm and the most unrealistic but most fabulous application to Harvard Law School imaginable. When sorority girl Elle Woods (Courtney Hatcher) aims to follow her ex-boyfriend to law school and win him back, she does it in a big way that includes a veritable parade through the Dean of Admissions' office in the number "What You Want."
Once Elle realizes that she's smart and worthy by the end of Act 1, that doesn't leave much for Act 2. That's when the show's serious flaws begin to show. The focus shifts to a murder trial, and without the maniacally energetic original choreography of Jerry Mitchell, the filler numbers like "Whipped Into Shape," "Bend and Snap" and "Gay or European" just fall flat.
Act 2 also hosts the title song, a sad ballad sung by Elle and Emmet, the scruffy law student she's meant to love (Adam Cotugno). Just what does "legally blonde" mean? We first hear it when Elle's mean law professor (Cameron Weston) uses the phrase as an insult, implying Elle is a ditz who shouldn't even try to be a lawyer. During the ballad, when Elle keeps repeating the phrase, it's hard to tell what she means when she says it. And at the end of the show, we're told by the cast to go home and be legally blonde. What? Is the insult suddenly turned around and meant to be a form of empowerment?
It's all too much, and so is "Legally Blonde." For all its high energy and good intentions — a happy blond airhead realizes she has a brain and the world is saved! — "Legally Blonde" feels cobbled together by committee. The peppy, poppy score goes in one ear and out the other, with absolutely no promise of a single song taking on a life outside this candy-coated trifle.
There's an awful lot of effort put into this show for very little result. It's a minor distraction, a slight entertainment, a musical comedy without much comedy and forgettable music. "Legally Blonde" strains so hard to be disarming and fun that it just becomes irritating and disappointing. In that regard, very little has changed since the Broadway production.
What: "Legally Blonde the Musical," by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe (music and lyrics) and Heather Hach (book), presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Sept. 23, with 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $32 general; $4 discount for students and seniors.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.