Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Life of the Party
Heather Hach's bookbased on the original novel by Amanda Brown and the hit MGM movie of the same namespins a yarn part tall tale, part parody, and altogether heartwarming fun that finds additional space to make a statement about women's rights and capabilities. The story of Elle Wood begins like a teenage soap opera of B-level television, with UCLA graduating senior Elle much more eager to receive an engagement ring from her college beau Warner Huntington III than her degree. Then, over what she believes is her engagement dinner, the knock-out blonde in her new designer dress learns from the Harvard-bound law student, "If I am going to be a senator when I'm thirty, I'm gonna need somebody serious ... Less of a Marilyn, more of a Jackie" (from the song, "Serious").
Elle then proceeds to outline in "What You Want" a plan to join her desired to-be at Harvard ("What you want, Warner ... [is] all of this plus a brain!"), a big step for a fashion design major. From there, the tale takes us on a wild ride of Elle getting into Harvard, learning what it takes to succeed, and then rising to the top among her mostly doubting, snobby fellow students. They all get the surprise of their life as they finally come to love and respect herfor her brains and bravery and not just her Glamour magazine looks.
Along the way, Elle gets help from the most unlikely of sources. A law graduate named Emmett suddenly appears showing more than a passing interest in her not flunking out of law school. Paulette, a no-nonsense hairdresser, uses her own past of spurned love to give her the muster to help Elle in her romantic pursuit. Finally, a Greek chorus of Delta Nu sorority sisters from UCLA show up in her imagination to bolster her spirits and offer their own versions of sage, sassy advice every time Elle starts to falter in her pursuit of a law degree with Warner as the wrapped ribbon around it.
First a ditzy girl totally obsessed to land a ring on her finger who borders on being a pink-clad clown and near fool, Courtney Hatcher transforms Elle into a savvy, serious-minded woman out to ensure justice prevails in the wrongs done to others for whom she cares deeply. But the journey is full of wild swings, twists, and turns, which Ms. Hatcher delivers with exuberance, ebullience, and effervescence. Literally every time she is on stage, the focus naturally goes to her; and that is doubly true as she effortlessly belts her strong, soprano voice with crystal clarity. Notes flow with vibrancy and verve in the many numbers in which Ms. Hatcher is the star, often backed by the ensemble providing a stage full of students, sorority sisters, or salon patrons. And she equally shines each time she joins in solo or chorus line in dances with her impressive abilities to kick high and bend in half.
Around her are leads and supports that bring equally unique and eye-popping performances. Gennine Harrington easily becomes an audience favorite when she sounds forth in her heavy Massachusetts, blue-collar accent as Paulette, Elle's hairdresser, confidant, and morale booster. She delivers one of the show's singular moments as she adds lingering vibrato to an already strong voice in singing "Ireland," encouraging Elle on her way to love and law to "Go out there and ... get some Ireland, the country of whiskey and love."
Another sit-up-in-the-seat moment occurs when Jocelyn Pickett absolutely shakes the roof as she hits notes high in stellar octaves in both "Legally Blonde Remix" and in the company's "Finale." As Warner's new intended and law star-student Vivian, she at first comes across as stuck-up in mannered sophistication and out to make Elle's life miserable. But she proves her smarts are for real as she begins to see Elle's own brilliance and heart and becomes her loudest advocate. The transformation is masterfully and believably executed in Ms. Pickett's actingan acting performance only exceeded by her singing.
As ex-boyfriend Warner, Brad Satterwhite uses his smooth, easy flow, in control vocals to counter Elle's bright, ready-to-burst-with-excitement notes as they duet in "Serious," where the truth of Warner's marrying intentions pop Elle's bubble. Ray D'Ambrosio as heartless Professor Callahan is oily with subversive sleaze as he sings in the first day of class "Blood in the Water," a trait that becomes even more apparent when he tries to use his hallowed position of power to give Elle more than just a well-deserved "A."
With a singing voice that has a pleasing edge, can cut to the core with emotion, and brings amazing power to sustain a note well beyond its expected life, Justin Travis Buchs is superb as Emmett Forrest, the law graduate who steps in to tutor Elle to the head of the class. But the real delight in Mr. Buchs' performance comes when watching Emmett's increasing but still unspoken love for Elle shine forth in his star-struck eyes, his half-smiles, and his sighs when she is not looking directly at him.
These outstanding are only a sample of other fine performances given by this large cast of twenty-eight (including Joe Murphy's UPS delivery boy who brings the house down and Noelani Neal's smartly executed role as wrongly accused murderess Brooke Wyndam). The entire cast is dressed with flair, fun, and fashion by Kat Pruyn, especially the stunning and ever-changing wardrobe she provides Elle. Kuo-Hao Lo continues to prove his Bay Area reputation as a set designer par excellence with a design that is flexible for the script's many scene changes. Dee Morrissey outdoes herself in the wig department from curls to frills to locks that fall sexily over the eyes.
Don Coluzzi's lighting ensures we switch attention where most needed (although a few spots on soloists failed to hit target at times at the performances I attended), and Dylan Chavez has designed a sound mix that allows the many wonderful lyrics of O'Keefe and Benjamin to shine forth in clarity. Finally, kudos must go to music director Rick Reynolds and his orchestra of ten for delivering the score with much pizzazz and preciseness.
What sometimes takes away from the flow of the story is the too-frequent and often too-silly appearances of the sorority sister Greek chorus, a fault more of the book than of the production. They prance in and out, above and about the stage; and after a while, their shrill voices and exaggerated moves become a bit tiresome.
A disappointing element in this production compared to others I have seen is the choice to include every over-done stereotype of gay men while executing the song, "Gay or European." What has been in the past my favorite part of Legally Blonde was less so this time. A key witness's testimony comes into question by Elle when he claims to be an accused murderess's lover. She suspects he is actually gay (and not in the claimed heterosexual relationship), and she and the entire court begin to speculate in hilarious sung lyrics if his mannerisms are those of a gay man or a Europeanor both. In the Hillbarn production, there is no doubt that the witness is gay due to all the fey, flirty, frivolous mannerisms the actor employs. In other productions, the witness is clearly European but with many subtle hints that there is more under his beret than he is openly admitting.
That said, director Dan Demers has taken this large and diverse cast and produced a Legally Blonde that sparkles, tickles, and in the end inspires. A strong set of hummable songs spring to full life and a story both surprises and comes to a predictable but satisfying ending. Most importantly, the audience leaves with big smiles, full hearts, and more than just a few earworms.
Legally Blonde the Musical continues through September 18, 2016, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City. Tickets are available online at www.hillbarntheatre.org or by calling 650-349-6411.