Legally lame

LEGALLY BLONDE * Music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin * Book by Heath Hach * Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell * Starring Laura Bell Bundy, Christian Borle, Orfeh, and Michael Rupert * Palace Theatre, New York City.

Broadway producers have picked up the scent of a substantial and until recently underserved market for shows, especially musicals. It’s a population that not only has a butt-load of disposable income to burn but also is obsessed with style, romance, cute guys, and strong women. Yes, we’re talking about teenage girls, whose excitement, devotion, and repeat business most obviously account for the multi-million-dollar success of Wicked and have also substantially contributed to the long runs of Mamma Mia, Rent, Movin’ Out, and Elton John’s Aida

No Broadway show has more aggressively targeted this audience, though, than Legally Blonde, the musical adaptation of the popular Reese Witherspoon movie. The audience at the Palace Theatre is dominated by gaggles of squeaky girls between 10 and 15, their adult chaperones, and their sisters-under-the-skin, gay men, whom nothing short of a court order could keep away from Broadway musicals. But guess who’s lining up at the merchandise counters to buy Chihuahua T-shirts and yoga pants that say “OMIGOD” across the butt?

Jerry Mitchell, the openly gay and gorgeous choreographer who made The Full Monty and Hairspray sizzle, debuts as a director staging Legally Blonde. In a fetchingly candid New York Times interview, he referred to the show as “a big pink snowball,” which just about says it. For those of you who didn’t see the movie, the story is a fairy tale about Elle Woods, a Southern California sorority girl who gets dumped by her blue-blooded boyfriend for not being serious enough. When “Malibu Barbie” manages to follow him to Harvard Law School, she shows him up and discovers Girl Power big-time. I hadn’t seen the movie until the night before I saw the musical, which was probably a mistake. For all its teen-girl appeal, the movie is a gem of wit and depth compared to the seriously dumbed-down musical. Heather Hach’s book steals most of the best jokes from the movie and pads out the key scenes with overlong musical numbers, scored by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin in that cheesy shrill synthetic pop style that seems to be de rigeur for musicals made from movies these days. 

Shows aimed at tween-girls rely on word-of-mouth rather than critics, but the lukewarm reviews rightly focused on the casting. Laura Bell Bundy, who was fine in the one-note role of Amber Von Tussle in Hairspray, doesn’t have nearly the dazzle required to pull off Elle. (Kristin Chenoweth would have been perfect, but apparently she’s been likened to Reese Witherspoon too often for her liking.) Times critic Ben Brantley famously quipped that it’s like Hello, Dolly! starring Shirley Jones rather than Carol Channing. Mitchell unwisely fills the stage with a lot of bland blond girls, so that Bundy blends in rather than sticks out. Broadway stalwarts Christian Borle, Michael Rupert, and Orpeh are fine as Elle’s law-school boyfriend, her sleazy professor, and her hairdresser- advisor Paulette, but none surpass their movie counterparts (Luke Wilson, Victor Garber, and the fabulous Jennifer Coolidge).

Brantley caused some grumbling about “political correctness” with his complaints about all the jokes at the expense of Elle’s unattractive lesbian law-school classmate Enid. I had my own political objections based on how the musical played the key scene where Elle outs a Latino poolboy in a murder trial. In the movie, her evidence is the guy’s recognizing her shoes as “last-season Prada.” The musical blows this into a huge, fascinating though unnerving song debating his character (a la Details magazine) as “Gay or European?” Elle proves he’s gay because his eyes don’t pop out of his head and he doesn’t start drooling over her ass when she does her patented bend-and-snap routine. I would object to this perpetuation of heterosexist objectification of females, except that my eyes popped out of my head and I started drooling whenever Andy Karl put in an appearance as the UPS guy who courts Paulette. They do a brief weird Riverdance parody that Mitchell caught flak for including, but I understand it completely. If anyone wanted to insure a big gay audience for Riverdance, they’d cast it full of hunky guys in UPS uniforms!

There are a bunch of hot shows playing on Broadway this summer, but if your nieces and their neighborhood girlfriends want you to accompany them, it won’t be to see Vanessa Redgrave play Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking or Frank Langella do Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. You’ll have to see those on your own.

The Advocate, July 3, 2007