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Friday, March 16, 2007

Legally Blonde begins on Top — then Splinters off into Diversionary Amusement

Review: New Broadway-Bound Musical Opens in San FranciscoAbout a third or half way through Act One, the new musical Legally Blonde, now trying out at the Golden Gate Theatre, looks and sounds like a solid musical comedy hit. Based upon the novel and the movie, the show delivers three winning numbers – "What you Want," with a strong popular hook; a rousing "The Harvard Variations" and the cold-hearted lawyerly anthem, "Blood in the Water." And in sensibility and development, it resembles "How To Succeed. In Business Without Really Trying." Can it be this good a show?

Well, maybe -- with a lot more work. Blond fritters away its early promise by splintering off into extraneous subplots and character cameos that are more issue-driven (all about women empowering themselves) than dramatically relevant. Of conflict, here there is little. Ultimately, the book by Heather Hach takes a low pandering Disney road a la Aida. Plot turns that might have been major are tossed around and resolved in carton fashion Laura Bell Bundy, cast in the role of protagonist Elle Woods, pushes the silly stereotype of a shrill bubble-brain blond to a grating degree, even after she manages to get into Harvard Law School. Her sole motivation is to prove to the boyfriend who dumped her back in California because she is not "serious" enough that, indeed, she is. He is also at Harvard, now with a new girlfriend. Between him and Elle, surprisingly there is little tension.

By Act Two, Elle is now an intern at the law firm managed by her professor, Callahan, and at work on the defense for a criminal defendant. Suddenly, Elle is shown to the door when she refuses Callahan’s pass. On this callous rejection, the first act curtain might have fallen. But that honor goes to the blandly upbeat "So much better." As for the trial, a couple of courtroom scenes are so illegally farcical that, by comparison, a courtroom scene I recall from a "Golden Girls"episode looks almost Shakespearean. By then, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to keep the audience engaged and laughing.

The songs of Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin push a hard, sporadically inventive beat. A few genuine gems include "Is he Gay or European?" It’s as polished and rollicking as a showstopper by Lerner and Loewe. Particularly outstanding is Michael Rupert as Professor Callahan. Book direction by Jerry Mitchell, who also choreographs, is on the creeky side.

Nonetheless, Blonde is loaded with theatrical promise, and its central premise, however superficial, about a squeaky-clean blond girl from Malibu learning how to prove herself intellectually, is a natural lure for the multitudes of mid-teen girls who are said to line up enmasse at Broadway ticket windows.

Beyond the whopping reception accorded Blonde during curtain calls, largely by the young people who dominated the half filled theatre, this fledgling musical to an adult feels achingly underdevloped and short of the Broadway mark.