Tickled Pink: Legally Blonde: The Musical at Summer Theatre of New Canaan

By Brooks Appelbaum

True confession: having seen the 2001 film Legally Blonde, starring the incomparable Reese Witherspoon, I couldn’t imagine that a musical makeover could possibly improve on the movie. Surely, Broadway was once again just trolling for material by looking to the big screen. However, the delightful production of Legally Blonde: The Musical, directed by Allegra Libonati and now playing at Summer Theatre of New Canaan, proves that the stage version can, in its own way, be as funny and charming as the film. Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s buoyant music and lyrics enliven the plot; and the book, by Heather Hach, adds vivacity to the film’s story and characters. At STONC, Libonati’s direction brings out the best in her performers, all of whom are beautifully cast and possess great enthusiasm and talent.

The plot of both film and musical provides some witty and welcome variations on the romantic comedy formula. Perky, sweet-natured, and oh-so-blonde Elle is unexpectedly jilted by her high school sweetheart, Warner, who claims that, since he is heading to Harvard Law School, he needs a girlfriend who is “serious.” Cheered on by her Delta Nu sorority sisters, Elle determines to follow Warner to Harvard and prove to him that a blond, pretty girl who dresses exclusively in pink can conquer law school for love.

Once at Harvard (yes, she is accepted, by way of the most unrealistic but most enjoyable large cast number, “What You Want”), Elle can’t get serious until teaching assistant Emmett Forrest pushes her to study. When Warner shows up with a new girlfriend, Vivienne (brunette and attired all in black, of course), Elle’s Delta Nu sisters appear as a Greek Chorus to cheer her on. The kooky, loveable hair stylist, Paulette, joins Elle’s group of friends, and Elle gains confidence, winning one of four intern positions offered by her smooth, heartlessly ambitious law professor, Callahan.

From there, Legally Blonde: The Musical becomes a courtroom drama, a celebration of sisterhood, a tribute to true love, and a feminist statement about flouting stereotypes. In this production, at least, as in the film, the plot’s depiction of a young woman struggling to succeed on her own terms subtly underscores the bubbly humor.

Naturally, the show stands or falls by the actress who plays Elle, and Libonati has found a winner in Kara Dombrowski. A spot-on comedienne and a strong actor, Dombrowski also dances with verve and has a terrific voice. Elle’s relentless cheer could easily become grating, but Dombrowski avoids this trap: her Elle instantly gains our affection and holds it throughout the entire evening.

The featured performers match Dombrowski in their comic skill, charisma, and charm. As Emmett, Matthew Christian -- as sincere as is Elle, with his “scruffy corduroy vibe” -- is an appealing singer who gives a nuanced, warmly engaging performance. Preston Ellis manages to make Warner appropriately arrogant in his rejection of Elle but at the same time, although we never quite understand why Elle loves him so much (this problem is inherent in the script), Ellis infuses his character with a boyish confusion that helps us understand that Warner, like Elle, is trapped by others’ expectations and deserves our sympathy.

Especially marvelous is Jodi Stevens as Paulette, the zany hairdresser with a heart of gold and an odd obsession with Ireland’s supposedly romantic ways. Stevens, her beauty all but hidden beneath Paulette’s clown-like make-up, has the large features and silly-putty expressions of the best comics. Making intelligent use of her mobile face, height and long limbs, stage presence and terrific voice, she creates a gorgeously unique character and nearly steals every one of her scenes.

Also excellent is Stephen Hope as Elle’s law professor, Callahan. Callahan’s big number, “Blood in the Water,” is one of the strongest in the show, and Libonati stages it effectively on the multi-leveled set, well designed by Julia Noulin-Merat. Callahan is a tricky role with a few hairpin turns along the way, and Hope -- with leading man looks that heighten the surprises -- navigates the path with precision.

Anthony Bruno, too, demonstrates his versatility in the dual roles of the absurd academic, Padamadan, and the sultry Nikos, star witness in the central courtroom scene. In a sense, Bruno plays not two roles but three: as Nikos he must portray two different stereotypes, and his focus and specificity make Nikos both very funny and mesmerizing.

Especially notable, too, are Kate Simone in a strong, sleek turn as Warner’s law school girlfriend, Vivienne, and Shannon Mullen as Brooke, ruler of the fitness world and defendant in the trial. In her breathtakingly athletic and sexy number, “Whipped into Shape,” Mullen makes us believe she could indeed be a killer. Yet, like so many of these characters, there is more to Brooke than we think, and Mullen hits (pun intended) every note.

Every actor in the large ensemble sings, dances, and acts with terrific energy and professionalism. At times the small stage feels crowded, but while one can wish that choreographer Doug Shankman had found slightly more creative ways to arrange the large dance numbers, it would be difficult to choose which of these triple-threats to sacrifice for space. At least Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set helps to lend variation, and the costumes, by Lauren Gaston -- so important to this show about surfaces -- greatly enhance each character’s journey.

On the night I attended, the only significant weakness in this otherwise terrific production lay in the balance between the voices -- particularly that of Dombrowski -- and the orchestra, otherwise ably led by David Hancock Turner. In the first act the music tended to overpower her solos, but by Act II, the orchestra had adjusted so that Dombrowski’s voice came through more strongly. So there is every reason to believe that this issue has been resolved.

The show, running at least two hours with over twenty musical numbers, flies by. Broadway reviewers compared the Big Apple production to eating various forms of sugary candy in large quantities -- and these were positive reviews. However, this production offers not only immediate pleasure but also reasons to think about the dilemmas of youth and identity much longer than one might imagine. The production’s unexpected depth is largely due to Dombrowski’s determination and sincerity, and to Libonati’s wise understanding that in the best comedies, characters take their predicaments seriously, no matter how silly or frothy these predicaments might appear.

Legally Blonde: The Musical runs through August 9th. For tickets or more information call 203-966-4634 or go to www.stonc.org

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