Omigod, Broadway totally has a new princess. In much the same way Tracy Turnblad sashayed into town in “Hairspray” or the budding “Wicked” witches touched down, Elle Woods beams in from planet Malibu via Harvard Law in “Legally Blonde,” bringing girl-empowerment aplenty. While the hit 2001 MGM film was a cute premise in search of a plot, kept afloat by Reese Witherspoon’s dazzling charisma, the musical trades up on the original model in both character development and infectious comedy. It may not be bulging with subtext or boast a score for the ages, but this pinksapoppin funhouse delivers exactly what it promises.
Working from Amanda Brown’s novel and Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s screenplay, book writer Heather Hach has added definition to the story’s generic message about being true to yourself and not judging people by their packaging. As in her major previous credit, Disney’s delightful 2003 “Freaky Friday” remake, Hach dispenses those life lessons with a disarmingly light touch.
“You have the right to be rich, hot and blonde” may hardly qualify as a motto for society’s most downtrodden underdogs, but encased in this effervescent anthem to female self-realization, the rallying cry to go forth and tap the potential to be more than just a trophy wife becomes almost universal.
Still, this is not exactly “Cabaret” and without the right guiding hand the show might have evaporated in its own vaporousness. Choreographer-turned-director Jerry Mitchell has done a creditable job of driving this well-oiled machine. Its zippiness in the opening stretch, in particular, is almost dizzying.
Admittedly, any show that begins with a conversation between a sorority bubblehead and a yapping Chihuahua (Elle’s scene-stealing pooch Bruiser) has this critic at curtain-up. But even without that stroke of shameless crowd-pleasing, Mitchell and composing team Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin get things off to a delirious start. So many musicals make the mistake of trudging through establishing book scenes and spreading the first-act numbers too thin. But “Legally Blonde” fires them off bam-bam-bam, clocking high-speed narrative miles as it pumps the energy level with a series of songs breezing through multiple locations and quick costume changes.
We go from “Omigod You Guys” (a song designed to embed itself on a loop in your brain for days), as Elle (Laura Bell Bundy) and the girls prepare for her big date, to “Serious,” a dollop of double-edged boy-band schmaltz in which the expected proposal from Elle’s vain, ambitious boyfriend Warner (Richard H. Blake) turns instead into her being unceremoniously dumped.
“Daughter of Delta Nu” has Elle’s sorority sisters coaxing her out of depression, while the multi-part “What You Want” begins as a plan to follow Warner to Harvard and win him back by showing how smart and serious she can be, follows Elle through her LSAT preparations and her struggle to abstain from Spring Fling partying, and blooms into a rousing showstopper with her Harvard admission application, complete with cheerleaders and drum corps. And that’s just the first half-hour.
No musical could entirely hope to sustain that breakneck pace, but, even when its balloon deflates a little, “Legally Blonde” keeps its motor purring. Mitchell directs the show to within an inch of its life, keeping every last member of the large ensemble busy. But while his dance background might be expected to make movement a priority, the director’s work with the writer and actors to etch their characters and flesh out their respective journeys keeps the show buoyant.
Alongside Elle, there’s Warner’s initially aloof blueblood replacement girlfriend, Vivienne (Kate Shindle); coolly unscrupulous Professor Callahan (Michael Rupert), whose shark ethos gets amusingly outlined in “Blood in the Water”; teaching assistant Emmett (Christian Borle), who, as Elle’s new romantic interest, is more developed than Luke Wilson’s character in the movie and has a relaxed, self-effacing charm; fitness empire queen and murder defendant Brooke (Nikki Snelson); and Paulette (Orfeh), the trashy working-class hairdresser who befriends Elle and in exchange gets a self-esteem makeover that helps her land the “walking porn” UPS guy (Andy Karl).
One of several key scenes in the movie that were musical numbers waiting to happen, the man-hook “Bend and Snap” routine yields an upbeat dance number and is cleverly employed to further a plot point in Brooke’s trial.
Commenting on the action as a Greek chorus in Elle’s head is a sorority sister trio, captained with comic verve by the hilarious Leslie Kritzer, who’s way overdue for a starring role, and ably backed by Annaleigh Ashford and DeQuina Moore.
Of course the most crucial cast element is Elle, and Bundy could hardly be more winning. Decked out in signature pink, she adheres to the mold created by Witherspoon yet makes the role her own with a force-of-nature confidence that’s never brash, offsetting Elle’s can-do entitlement with touching vulnerability and a genuine warmth that cements her connection to even the skeptics in her radiant orbit. It’s perhaps significant that Bundy’s first Broadway gig was as the original Amber in “Hairspray,” the show “Legally Blonde” most wants to emulate.
OK, so it’s easy to quibble with the musical’s weaknesses. Structurally, the murder trial could be introduced earlier, and, being the first time we encounter the character, Brooke’s workout number, “Whipped Into Shape,” seems oddly placed at the opening of act two. O’Keefe and Benjamin’s pop, soul and hip-hop inflected melodies are rarely as catchy as the cheeky humor and contemporary cultural references of their lyrics and they have failed to give Elle a defining song to echo her personal growth. And Mitchell’s choreography is more peppy than inventive, only really gathering athletic steam in “Bend and Snap” and Elle’s Harvard application.
But the show’s good-natured appeal is undeniable, right down to the delicious, probably unintentionally cruel timing of its “Riverdance” parody, following turgid fellow Broadway newcomer “The Pirate Queen” into New York. (The element stems from Paulette’s Emerald Isle fixation, articulated with Orfeh’s powerhouse pipes in the very funny song, “Ireland.”) Even its gay stereotyping is affectionate; the refrain of “Gay or European?” likely will make courtroom number “There! Right There!” an instant staple of gay men’s choruses.
Ultimately, however, the core audience for this show will be female — from preteens through to their mothers and maybe even grandmothers. Hach not only has guided Elle to empowering fulfillment but Paulette, Vivienne and Brooke all reveal themselves to be women capable of navigating their own distinctive paths.
On the tech side, the show is a sparkling confection, animated by David Rockwell’s vibrantly cartoonish sets with their typically playful use of skewed perspective and the candy-kissed lighting of Ken Posner and Paul Miller. Gregg Barnes’ costumes help nail the characters with wit and insight. Sole minor flaw is an over-amped sound mix that at times compromises lyrical clarity for volume.