For its summer season, New Village Arts Theatre has produced two musical comedies with somewhat deeper stories than one might expect. Avenue Q used puppets to explore themes about adulthood, and Legally Blonde starting off as a modern romantic comedy, turns into a plot about self-improvement.
Based on Amanda Brown’s novel and the Reese Witherspoon film, a Malibu UCLA college grad, Elle Woods (Danielle Levas) believes her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Cody Ingram) is going to propose. After being accepted into Harvard Law School, Warner breaks up with her as he believes she has no direction in life – primarily in keeping with his new status.
Hoping to win him over, Elle applies to Harvard, gets accepted into the prestigious school and moves to Boston with her dog, Bruiser (the very likable Chihuahua, Luna Pierce). With the help of a goal-oriented teaching assistant, Emmett Forrest (Sittichai Chaiyahat), she begins to become immersed in the world of law.
What hooks audiences into the show in Carlsbad is the manner in which Heather Hatch’s book, and the songs from Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, develop Elle as a person and professional. Outside of a few moments where Hatch’s book over-explains different emotions that Elle and others in the story are feeling, it’s very easy to care about her unpredictable journey.
Even after Elle is first introduced as a aimless sorority-loving party girl, she isn’t depicted as a walking joke.
Levas brings a surprising amount of complexity to her character and displays different emotions from uncertainty to assertiveness, bringing a positive contagious energy to songs such as “Omigod You Gus” and “So Much Better.”
Legally Blonde is focused on Elle, although other characters have their own interesting and often funny stories as well. Chaiyahat and Marlene Montes as the lovesick manicurist Paulette, in particular, are given arcs that are equally humorous and gratifying. Chaiyahat’s sincere rendition of “Chip on my Shoulder” and Montes’ uproarious handling of “Ireland” create a lot of investment in Elle’s new friends.
With more than 15 performers in the production, artists such as Cassie Bleher, Steven Freitas, Catie Marron, Joel Miller and Ingram are all engaging whenever they appear onstage.
Other important factors in the telling of Elle’s story is an emphasis on generally light musical numbers and laughs. Without delving into self-parody, Founder and Executive Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner stages songs such as “What You Want,” “Bend and Snap” and “There! Right There!” with plenty of ironic and witty touches.
High-spirited songs feature lively work from the orchestra led by music director/ conductor/keyboardist, Tony Houck (who gets a memorable cameo in Act II) and choreographer Kyle Hawk. The contributions from Houck, the other musicians and Hawk complement each other during songs such as “Whipped Into Shape” and “Legally Blonde (Remix).”
A few other crewmembers also incorporate some smartly handled imagery. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set is themed to the sorority, Delta Nu, and uses the house as a clever contrast to the more proper Harvard University, while Alex Crocker-Lakness’ colors in his lighting – such as red in “Blood in the Water” and the color green in “Ireland” – are tongue-in-cheek with a capital T.
Legally Blonde might only be about a decade old, yet there are a few sequences that resonate in the #MeToo era. A scene where Elle is sexually harassed and one where Elle and Paulette visit the latter’s scummy ex-husband Dewey (Trevor Rex), feature the kind of negative treatment of women that’s been recently discussed in the media. While these scenes are brief and don’t take away from the mostly upbeat tone, they still leave an impact in 2018.
Whether you are looking for a good night out, or for a comedic tale that takes its messages seriously, Legally Blonde delivers plenty of fun and entertainment. Kurner’s production is the type of unconventionally feminist show that we need right now.