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Legally Blonde

Amid the glut of movies becoming stage musicals, "Legally Blonde" seemed a better candidate than most. The original was already virtual musical comedy minus the songs. It also sported a lightweight but sturdy plot that could lose little in translation; indeed, both the 2001 pic and its 2003 sequel were so formulaic that a tuner might stand a reasonable chance of improvement.

With:
Elle Woods - Laura Bell Bundy Warner Huntington III - Richard H. Blake Paulette - Orfeh Emmett Forrest - Christian Borle Vivienne Kensington - Kate Shindle Brooke Wyndham, Shandi - Nikki Snelson Professor Callahan - Michael Rupert

Amid the glut of movies becoming stage musicals, “Legally Blonde” seemed a better candidate than most. The original was already virtual musical comedy minus the songs. It also sported a lightweight but sturdy plot that could lose little in translation; indeed, both the 2001 pic and its 2003 sequel were so formulaic that a tuner might stand a reasonable chance of improvement. The good news is it does that — thoroughly, delightfully so. The bad news? Actually, there is none.

This fuchsia fluffsicle, socked over by choreographer-turned-director Jerry Mitchell, might not win over those opposed on principal to the Hollywoodization of Broadway. But its S.F. tryout is already a genuinely likable, splashy crowd-pleaser that could prove grumble-proof come its May Rialto launch.

The movies, inspired by Amanda Brown’s comic novel, offered one simple hook (think “Born Yesterday” meets “Valley Girl”) and routine situations singlehandedly redeemed by Reese Witherspoon’s star turn as Elle Woods. She gave not-so-dumb-blonde as good as any of the greats, from Judy Holliday to Kristen Chenoweth.

Stepping into those spike-heeled shoes is Laura Bell Bundy, whose ditz credentials are in full order following turns as the original Amber in Broadway’s “Hairspray” and replacement to Chenoweth’s Glinda in “Wicked.” Bundy may not have Witherspoon’s radiant warmth (who does?), but she engagingly makes the role her own even as she delivers a faithful reproduction of its originator’s (nonsinging) character voice.

Malibu-born-and-bred Elle is the stereotypical perfect product of her environment, an apparent bubblehead with the body, hair, wardrobe and money to make most guys say, “Who cares if it has a brain?” But in fact, she’s a 4.0 UCLA student — albeit in fashion merchandising.

Opening number “Omigod You Guys,” the first of many effectively rousing interludes, has her equally squeal-inclined sorority sisters at Delta Nu athrall with anticipation for Elle — because tonight is the night perfect boyfriend Warner (Richard H. Blake) is expected to propose. Instead of popping the question, however, he pops her balloon. Heading to Harvard Law in the fall, with plans to be “a senator by 30,” Warner can’t afford anymore to have a living Barbie as consort. It’s time to get “Serious,” he sings.

Latter duet is a good example of how “Legally Blonde” composer-lyricists Laurence O’Keefe (“Bat Boy”) and Nell Benjamin utilize the pop, R&B and hip-hop party sounds of recent MTV decades to enjoyably semi-satirical ends — after all, boy bands, “American Idol”-style canned soul and booty-shaking anthems would be the logical soundtrack for Elle’s worldview.

On first listen, the songs don’t impress as being worth much repetition outside the show’s infectious performance context. Still, they are facile and ironic in the right way, with lyrics (like the dialogue in Heather Bach’s book) that are often very funny.

Devastated, Elle pulls herself out of a “shame spiral” — and out of the pink-and-teal Barbie Mansion of David Rockwell’s inspired sorority-house skeleton. Figuring she can win Warner back if she proves she’s “serious” after all, she crams enough to actually gain admission to Harvard. Rather than penning a personal essay, however, her application climaxes with a halftime Super Bowl cheer squad routine performed for the initially incredulous Law School dean in his office.

Once ensconced, Elle is dismayed to discover Warner already has a very “serious” new girlfriend in ambitious Vivienne (Kate Shindle), and that her own superfemme El Lay ways appear ludicrous to classmates, let alone to tough Prof. Callahan (Michael Rupert), legal eagle of a billion-dollar firm. He informs new students that only “some lawyers are sharks. The rest are chum.”

Ridiculed Elle finds emotional support in brassy Bostonian hairdresser Paulette (Orfeh) and academic motivation from Emmett (Christian Borle), the teaching assistant-cum-working-class hero cast as improved romantic-fadeout material. (Elle also gets a delightful Greek chorus of yakkety Delta Nu sisters, who materialize whenever crisis arises.)

After intermission, Elle’s close study of girly surface style ultimately triumphs in a court case wherein Callahan and interns defend fitness-regime queen Brooke Wyndham (Nikki Snelson) from the charge of murdering her rich older husband.

So much of “Legally Blonde” is so smartly engineered, good looking, high energy and hilarious that it’s easy to forgive those few moments sporting an earnestness this material can’t easily support. (Much is lumped on Borle, though he manages to be funny when he can.)

Among the show’s many appealing aspects is how it manages to swim in broadly amusing shallows most of the time while avoiding heartlessness. The “be true to yourself” message is utterly by-the-numbers — but such is the evening’s charm that it doesn’t seem fake.

Highlights are many. Among them are numbers big (like Brooke’s second-act rev-up “Whipped Into Shape”), small (Paulette’s carnal ode to “Ireland”) and midscale narrative-advancing (“So Much Better,” “Bend and Snap”).

Mitchell, choreographer of “Hairspray,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Full Monty” and his 2005 Tony winner, the “La Cage aux Folles” revival, makes a terrifically assured directorial debut. Dancing isn’t technically dazzling (like the music, it stays within idioms relevant to Elle’s A-to-B SoCal cultural education), but the show moves with such purposeful fun that the climaxes earned frequent showstopper applause on opening night.

Sole number that sticks out oddly is “There! Right There!,” a courtroom episode that’s quite funny but whose operetta parody just seems out of sync here. (Conversely, a brief “Riverdance” satire is goofily hysterical.)

In a strong supporting ensemble, Orfeh’s Fran Drescher-style comedics, Andy Karl as a “walking porn” UPS guy who becomes her love interest and Natalie Joy Johnson as Elle’s lesbian law school classmate Enid are standouts.

Rockwell’s set assemblies of fleetly lowered/wheeled-in pieces are cute and clever, nicely lit by Kenneth Posner and Paul Miller. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are another hit.

Legally Blonde

Golden Gate Theater, San Francisco; 2,400 seats; $90 top

Production: A Hal Luftig, Fox Theatricals, Dori Berinstein, James L. Nederlander, Independent Presenters Network, Roy Furman, Amanda Lipitz, Broadway Asia, Barbara Whitman, FWPM Group, Hendel/Wiesenfeld, Goldberg/Binder, Stern/Meyer, Lane/Comley, Bartner-Jenkins/Nocciolino and Warren Tripp presentation in association with MGM on Stage, Darcie Denkert and Dean Stolber of a musical in two acts, with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, book by Heather Hach, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the MGM motion picture. Directed, choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Musical direction, James Sampliner.

Crew: Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Gregg Barnes;lighting, Kenneth Posner, Paul Miller; sound, Acme Sound Partners. Opened, reviewed Feb. 6, 2007. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast: Elle Woods - Laura Bell Bundy Warner Huntington III - Richard H. Blake Paulette - Orfeh Emmett Forrest - Christian Borle Vivienne Kensington - Kate Shindle Brooke Wyndham, Shandi - Nikki Snelson Professor Callahan - Michael RupertWith: Annaleigh Ashford, April Berry, Paul Canaan, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Beth Curry, Tracy Jai Edwards, Amber Efe, Gaelen Gilliland, Jason Gillman, Becky Gulsvig, Rod Harrelson, Manuel Herrera, Natalie Joy Johnson, Andy Karl, Nick Kenkel, Michelle Kittrell, Leslie Kritzer, DeQuina Moore, Rusty Mowery, Kevin Pariseau, Matthew Risch, Jason Patrick Sands, Noah Weisberg, Kate Wetherhead.
Musical numbers: "Omigod You Guys," "Serious," "Daughter of Delta Nu," "What You Want," "The Harvard Variations," "Blood in the Water," "Love and War," "Ireland," "Ireland" (reprise), "Serious" (reprise), "Chip on My Shoulder," "So Much Better," "Whipped Into Shape," "Take It Like a Man," "Bend and Snap," "There! Right There!", "Legally Blonde," "Legally Blonde Remix," "Omigod You Guys" (reprise), "Find My Way/Finale," "Omigod You Guys" (reprise).

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