Inside Move: ‘Blonde’ basks in praise

San Francisco critics love new musical

The reviews are in, and they’re mostly raves.

New tuner “Legally Blonde” opened its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco Tuesday, and by Thursday morning, the show had a bundle of gushy critics’ quotes to tout, including “a buoyant blend of comic invention, captivating performances, bright design and knock-’em-dead dance numbers” (San Francisco Chronicle) and “Broadway’s next smash hit” (KGO TV).

The Rialto hasn’t seen this sort of overwhelmingly positive reception since “Spamalot” in 2005 or, really, the 2002 arrival of “Hairspray,” another bubbly girl-power tale that rode into Gotham on a wave of out-of-town praise. (Like “Hairspray,” “Blonde” has David Rockwell sets and Jerry Mitchell choreography. This time out, Mitchell also directs.)

San Francisco critics proved far kinder to “Blonde” than they did to the short-lived “Lestat,” the last new musical to play the city before landing at Broadway’s Palace Theater.

They also were warmer than the Chicago press was to another big-budget musical slated for the Rialto this spring, “The Pirate Queen.” Last fall’s pre-Broadway run of “Queen” yielded mixed reviews, and the show has brought on a musical staging consultant and a new book and lyrics writer to get things ship-shape for its New York opening April 5.

The “Blonde” production team is pleased by the strong advance word but trying not to let it go to their heads. “The pitfall is getting cocky, stopping the work, not looking at things objectively,” said producer Hal Luftig.

Luftig reports ticket sales in San Francisco are “far exceeding the expectations, even before the reviews,” adding group sales are particularly strong. He’s similarly pleased with group sales in New York, where single tickets go on sale Feb. 25 (with a Visa pre-sale starting Sunday).

Although San Fran critics praised the whole “Blonde” package, some deemed the show lacking in character development — “Great fun, not much heart” read the headline of the San Jose Mercury-News review — and many felt the music was more serviceable than memorable.

“There’s story clarification we need to do. There’s some editing,” Luftig said. “We think all the songs basically work, but we’re looking specifically at some of the lyrics.”

Creatives, including composer-lyricists Laurence O’Keefe (“Bat Boy”) and Nell Benjamin and book writer Heather Hach, will continue to tinker through the San Francisco run, which ends Feb. 24, and then through New York rehearsal and the four weeks of Broadway previews, which kick off April 3 for an April 29 opening.

Luftig hasn’t abandoned concerns that “Blonde” could get tagged as yet another pic-turned-tuner in a theater district riddled with them. “There is a sense of ‘Oh gosh, it’s another movie musical,’ ” he said. “That’s our challenge.”

The West Coast reviews will help with that, when quotes are trumpeted in print ads, radio spots and direct mailings. Still, as Luftig said, “New York is not San Francisco.”

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