‘Legally Blonde: The Musical’ is an energetic, glittery roller-coaster ride covered in pink
The University of Providence performance had strong singing, acting and stage work with only a few minor issues
The University of Providence Performing Arts Department’s “Legally Blonde: The Musical” can best be summed up like this — It’s an energetic, colorful, well produced show with a TON of metaphorical glitter sprinkled all over everything. And pink. There’s lots and lots of pink.
There were times watching it last night where I felt like I needed to sit down and catch my breath, even though I was just a bystander in the audience, a bysitter, if you will.
The show is meant to be light, fun, a little silly and catchy. There’s more to its story than that, but, that’s the initial surface feeling the show sets with its costumes, dancing, rhythms, set pieces, and more. The show concludes tonight, Nov. 18, with a showing at 2 and another at 7:30 p.m.
If you’re unaware of what “Legally Blonde” is about, where have you been? but, regardless if you’ve seen it or not, it’s a story about a young woman who follows the person she believes is love of her life to Harvard Law School as a way to try and win him back after he dumps her. Upon getting there, however, Elle starts to discover herself more as an individual who could become a successful lawyer in her own right, while also meeting the real love of her life.
Now, every show has strengths and weaknesses, and I’ll touch a bit on both with this one in the performance I saw on Nov. 17.
Let’s start with the strengths:
- The directors deserve a heap of praise for getting the casting right. Almost every person felt like they belonged there and while there’s certainly a lot of work on the actors’ part to make that happen, it all has to start with those who have to cast people they feel can succeed in those parts in the best way possible. For this show, they cast several people who, if you were to ask me before the show began, I would have said that there’s no way they can do what they did. But, credit must be given to Michael Gilboe, Jasmine Taylor and Meghan Wakeley for seeing something in them that others may not have before the process started. Which brings me to my second point…
- Several people surprised me with performances I didn’t know they had in them. There’s too many to list here, but, the highlight has to be Lindsey Nussbaum’s brilliant portrayal as the beefcakes Kyle and Nikos. That “yo baby, how yuu doin'” attitude seemed so natural and I can only imagine how fun it must have been for him because he’s usually more reserved in productions, either sitting behind the piano or in some other musical support role.
Hayley Letcher crushed it out of the park as Elle Woods. Her confidence shined through her performance the minute the curtain was drawn. Her singing was on point, the way she delivered her lines seemed natural and intuitive, you could hear her clearly while both speaking and singing, her character arc seemed real, and she looked great in each of the multiple costumes she wore. Theater productions are always a team effort, but without a strong lead actress, especially in this show, you’re sunk. Here, though, having Ms. Letcher sharing her strengths as an actress made it that much better. If I were to mention one way in which she could try to improve, it would be to keep working on conveying your emotions in an even stronger way. The audience loves to see the highest of highs and lowest of lows in lead actors, and while you gave a performance in which to be extremely proud, keep exploring those character emotions and letting loose with them and you’ll become even better in the future!
- I loved Brandi Smith’s Paulette. Her Jersey accent was awesome, her mannerisms were hilarious, and she had super timing with every joke she delivered. She stole almost every scene she was in, and her performance in “Legally Blonde Remix” was worth the price of admission by itself.
Hangie De Los Santos brought a TON of energy to the show. Her take as Brooke Wyndham was maybe one of her best I have seen. She shined in every scene she was in, whether that was dancing, acting or singing, and she did a great job showing off her chiseled bod, which, isn’t something an actor needs to have to be successful, but in a way it IS when you’re portraying a famous fitness instructor. Plus, when you got it, flaunt it. She was jumping rope, skipping, hopping, twisting, turning and dancing without breaking a sweat. After the show I believe that Hangie could become a famous fitness instructor in her own right if she so chose that calling.
Michael Gilboe did a wonderful job as Professor Callahan. Having not seen him perform on stage in a while, he shows here why he’s such a gifted performer. He became the professor, and his solo in “Blood in the Water” was one of the best in the show. He did a spectacular job playing the villain toward the end, and the fact he did this all while fulfilling all of his multiple other duties as director and theater department entrepreneur, makes it that even more impressive. While I don’t usually think having a director act in his own show is a good idea, Mr. Gilboe did it well here in a show that he’s long been a fan, from what I understand. As a director he’s a smart, patient leader and maybe one of the only downsides to him being in the cast is that you don’t get to hear his laughing in the audience which is somewhat of a staple for anyone who regularly goes to UP/UGF performances.
- Tony McConnoll did a spectacular job as Warner Huntington, the over-privileged law student/lawyer and ex-boyfriend of Elle. He hit all the right notes with that character, made much stronger by his natural good looks. His “I sorta love you, but not really” attitude he gave toward Elle was spot on.
- Leigh Ann Ruggiero did great with a role that seemed, from the outside looking in, as her stepping out of her comfort zone quite a bit. I loved the start of the show with her silhouette showing against the colorful backdrop. She brought a lot of enthusiasm and cheer to her role as Serena, the Greek sister, and she did great with her dance moves even if it wasn’t a natural strength.
- Jeremy Hudson played a strong, believable love interest to Elle, and I enjoyed the way he gradually becomes more of a part of her life in a laid-back, supportive friend kind of way could not have been done better. Chemistry is always a tough thing to fake and when it’s forced a lot of times you can tell. The chemistry here between Elle and Emmett seemed real, though.
- Finally, the lighting, costumes, props and audio work all was done quite well. The two-dimensional props were a clever way to show several items like the stenotype machine or the keg at the party, or the violin during Elle and Wesley’s breakup scene. The new colored lights on the walls added an extra bit of oomph, and everyone in the cast looked incredible in their costumes. Elle, especially, looked great. She had what seemed like 90 costume changes, several done while on stage, and each one looked as good or if not better than the last.
Now, to the things that the show could have done better. As usual, I will say that none of my criticisms are meant as personal insults or attacks, and every criticism I give is meant in a way that can hopefully help people improve.
The audio/microphone issues made several singing performances weaker than they would have been without the mics on at all. I know that it’s always a difficult decision about whether the lead actors should be miked or not, but, I’m one of those who thinks that if you cannot project to the back of the room without the mic, you shouldn’t be using it as a crutch to help do so. That’s also why I think it’s something that could be improved in the future because a lot of the times it seemed as if the actors whose mics cut off the most didn’t need them at all.
- This is more of a criticism with the musical itself more than this performance, but, I can understand how someone might get disturbed by the premise behind the song “There, Right There.” Anytime you open yourself up to discussing whether there’s certain behaviors that label someone “gay” or “not gay” it’s dicey because, well, gay people can be all different sizes, genders, and portray a range of human behaviors. I do understand that there are stereotypical “gay” behaviors, but, one might be inclined to feel that a song like this serves to reinforce those stereotypes. If you’re not aware of the song, “There, Right There” comes during the trial determining whether Brooke Wyndam murdered her husband or not. Elle presents the idea that Nikos and Brooke could not have been lovers, as Nikos claims, thereby exposing Brooke’s motive for killing her husband, because he is in fact homosexual.
The performance itself was done well by everyone involved. It’s just that it does traverse some controversial ground that, to some, might seem improper, while others will see it as funny and lighthearted. Your experience may vary.
- Some of McConnoll’s singing was a little pitchy. I’ve heard a lot, lot worse, but it was noticeable. Singing well is hard work, and some of us have the gift to sing more than others, but, this was something that I noticed, especially when he was singing next to Elle.
- Letcher’s nerves it seemed, affected her solo a tad bit during the song “Legally Blonde” in Act 2 . I did not notice it until I picked up how stronger it was after Emmett joined her vs. when she was alone. It was a small difference, and one that not everyone could likely even notice, but, it’s something I did hear. Singing on stage by yourself with the spotlight solely on you is a frightening thing that only the special few can do with ease, and Letcher did it spectacularly well, minus a few minor vocal differences that only the most detail-oriented listener could find.
- Near the beginning of the singing portion of “Positive” it felt like the women were standing a bit too far in the back of the stage. As the scene progressed, I understand why they started back there because they later walked toward the front more, but, perhaps the blocking could have been tweaked just a tad bit so that they started more toward the front and we could see them better, or, if they were to start in the back, have it where they come up front sooner.
- Toward the end in the bathroom scene, which I won’t explain to prevent spoiling the reveal, but, I got confused about what the woman with the blonde frizzy hair was supposed to be showing. I understood where the reveal was going, but, having the frizzy hair confused me in that I wasn’t sure what she was proving with that hairdo.
- The Jamaican character in “What You Want” probably didn’t need to be there. Anytime you dress up as someone from a different race you’re possibly asking for trouble, and here it just seemed like something that did not belong. Same goes for any scene with Sundeep Agrawal Padamadan, the Middle Eastern law student. It just felt like an awkward portrayal at best. Now, I realize that when you perform a musical like this, you need to present the show as it was written, and you can’t take out either the Jamaican or Mr. Padamadan. So, there’s probably not a way to handle those characters better than they already did, save finding talented Jamaican or Middle Eastern males to play them, which there aren’t many of around here.
It’s also worth remembering that this is a university production in Montana, not a touring play or a big-budget movie production. That said, though, it still does come across as somewhat uncomfortable to see.
In conclusion, I enjoyed watching “Legally Blonde.” The strengths far outweighed the weaknesses, and everyone put in a lot of hard work, that much was apparent. In the program, Gilboe writes, “Human beings are complex, multi-faceted beings, unlike the two-dimensional props in the show. The best way for us to thrive is to adapt. Neither toxic masculinity, nor storefront femininity win the prize in this show. Rather, it is the people who learn to adapt who will thrive.”
I agree with that assessment 100 percent. Even though Elle’s dreams get stomped on more than once throughout the story, she comes back even stronger and finds a way to succeed while discovering that she can be just as strong despite that adversity. That’s a message that should resonate with a lot of people, whether you’re a woman, man, straight, gay or otherwise.
Finally, doing a show that’s based on a widely popular movie can hurt it in that a lot of people who see it will have already based their opinion on the characters based on how they were portrayed in the movie. If you don’t do a character justice, it ESPECIALLY won’t resonate with people who have already established a connection with them based on the film. Fortunately, I’d say that they do each of the characters justice and while they’re not 100 percent like the ones in the movie, that’s all right because that’s a comparison you’ll never win, no matter how well a performance you can give. It does, however, stand on it’s own as a strong piece of art in it’s own right that you’ll probably enjoy no matter who you are.
Disclosure — Jake Sorich has performed in several shows with the then University of Great Falls, including last fall’s “Jekyll and Hyde,” and “Chicago” in 2013. He’s gotten to know many of the actors, directors, producers and musicians involved as a result.