THEATER

"Legally Blonde, the Musical" at the Kennedy Center

As Elle Woods, Becky Gulsvig can't muster the charm Reese Witherspoon brought to the role.
As Elle Woods, Becky Gulsvig can't muster the charm Reese Witherspoon brought to the role. (By Joan Marcus)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

You want fizz? Well, fizz is what you get in the touring musical version of "Legally Blonde," an adaptation of the cutesy-wutesy Reese Witherspoon movie fantasy about a Southern California sorority girl who goes to Harvard Law School with a pink wardrobe and a little dog named Bruiser.

Fizz is, in fact, all you get in this over-carbonated musical, which will continue to bubble and suds up all over the Kennedy Center Opera House into the second week of January. The show is first and foremost a workout for the adorability muscles of its star and Witherspoon look-alike, Becky Gulsvig, who models pink outfits and tosses around her golden tresses and articulates her precious thoughts in convincing trust-fund Malibu-ese.

But the calories burned here -- including those consumed during, yes, an aerobics production number -- are empty ones. In the inspiration department, the show is a 90-pound weakling; it's essentially a movie script with songs attached. And director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell, best known for arranging the dance steps in Broadway's "Hairspray," seems on this occasion to be moving his actors around in two states of being: hyper and hyper-er.

The cottage industry in movie-brand extension -- taking a popular film title, preferably a comedy or comedy-drama, and churning it into a musical -- is so pervasive that some consumers might now be only vaguely aware that there are other tuneful paths to Broadway. Just as the new "Billy Elliot" is one of the more imaginative entries of late, "Legally Blonde" is one of the more mechanical. It launches an oppressive campaign to strut its perkiness, a mission that amounts over the course of 2 1/2 hours to a force-feeding of synthetic pizazz.

Witherspoon, who knew just how much iron to add to the softer elements of her character Elle Woods, made the formulaic movie digestible. On the stage, the vehicle lacks that galvanizing charm. All that's left is formula. So what you have is a gallery of one-note characters -- brash, stuck-up or shrill -- out of a second-rate sitcom, and a series of literally translated songs, few of which display any real personality of their own.

The movie's "bend-and-snap" sequence, in which Elle teaches the unlucky-in-love beautician Paulette how a girl attracts a guy simply by reaching down and thrusting out her assets, is expressed in a song called, well, "Bend and Snap." (The musical's Paulette, played here by Natalie Joy Johnson, is a blowsier version of the character originated by the skilled comedian Jennifer Coolidge.) Like many of the numbers, "Bend and Snap" feels as if it is another item on a checklist, materializing with the sole assignment of conforming to a moment from the movie.

When "Legally Blonde, the Musical" tries to make a musical leap, it tends to stub its toe. For Elle's Harvard application, composers Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book writer Heather Hach substitute Elle's video submission with a live performance that breaks up a meeting of admissions officers, an elaborate "Music Man"-style production number so aggravatingly peppy, it might have trouble getting her accepted into musical-theater summer camp. (Then again, Harvard Law isn't exactly renowned for its rigorous scholarship in the songbook of Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

We won't dwell here on the simple-minded advantage "Legally Blonde" takes with crude caricatures: gay men who swish-swish-swish and salivating lesbians who all but pass out at the sight of the female body.

No, let's just try to push all that out of our minds. Hey! Here are some distractions: The city and its environs are offering up an especially robust assortment of musical possibilities at the moment: "Next to Normal" at Arena Stage, "Les Miserables" at Signature Theatre, "Grey Gardens" at Studio Theatre. At the National Theatre, meanwhile, "West Side Story" recently began preview performances.

It's safe to say that none of these shows spins at quite so many frenetic revolutions-per-minute as "Legally Blonde." But if a holiday jolt is all you're really after, a couple of Red Bulls would be a more economical way to go.

Legally Blonde, the Musical, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, book by Heather Hach. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Ken Posner and Paul Miller; sound, Acme Sound Partners; animal trainer, Bill Berloni; orchestrations, Christopher Jahnke; music supervisor, James Sampliner. With Megan Lewis, Ken Land, D.B. Bonds, Cortney Wolfson, Rhiannon Hansen, Crystal Joy, Coleen Sexton, Jeff McLean. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Jan. 11 at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.http://


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