Lip-Gloss Feminism: Legally Blonde: the Musical

Kelly Felthous (Elle Woods), Will Ray (Warner). Photo by Paul Lyden

Legally Blonde, music & lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, book by Heather Hach, North Shore Musical Theatre, 11/1/11-11/13/11,

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Beverly, MA)  

Dear Reader,

Do you want the long review or the short one for Legally Blonde: the Musical at the North Shore Music Theatre?

If you’re in a hurry, here’s the short one:

I gave a standing ovation to a bulldog, the first creature to come out for curtain call.  Go see this show!

If you have a bit more time, let me give you a more long-winded opinion:

Legally Blonde: the Musical is the rare show that performs the small miracle of simultaneously providing non-stop, over-the-top camp and nuanced performances that help the script tackle big questions about gender and sexual power.

It’s always enjoyable to find in a script when the writers slyly tip their hands to the viewers about the play’s theme.  Such a moment occurs a third of the way through the play when the valley-girl lead character, Elle (Kelly Felthous) shows up to a Harvard wine-and-crackers soiree dressed by mistake as a Playboy bunny.  Elle saves face by whipping out a pair of glasses and proclaiming herself dressed as Gloria Steinem undercover as a Playboy bunny for her groundbreaking first work on sexual politics.

Nothing could better sum up the line this musical deftly minces.  It creates a visual eye-candy of a play (with booty-shaking bodies galore for every theater-goer to enjoy, regardless of gender or sexual orientation) while showing how a woman learns to create her own self-identity separate from the wants and desires of men.

The plot is deceptively simple and based almost beat for beat on the popular movie of the same name: Malibu valley girl Elle is dumped by her rich and powerful boyfriend right when she thinks he was about to propose.  He leaves for Harvard Law School.  Devastated, she gets admitted (suspension of disbelief) to the same school with the sole purpose of winning him back.  With the help of new-found friends, including the budding love interest, Emmett Forrest (Barrett Hall), and a Greek chorus of Malibu valley girls, she discovers her own inner self-worth and strength.  Elle must put this strength on trial to defend an exercise-video queen accused of murder.

(I could give the ending away, but I won’t spoil it for the five people reading this review who haven’t seen the film.)

Although equipped with a wonderful script, a great score and a fabulous set, this play would be painful to watch if it weren’t performed expertly with enough energy to power the eastern seaboard.  (And I’m already dreading some future show-choir attempt.)  Luckily, the cast is stellar and able to run a marathon.  At times, the dance numbers freeze in a tableau; only then was I able to marvel at the incredible choreography of the big numbers, scratching my head and wondering, “How did they get in that position safely?”

The play also would have crashed and burned were it not for the three-dimensional characters created by both script and actors.  Almost every character is given time to be more than just the initial stereotype (s)he first appears to be, even a professor who sexual harasses Elle.

Felthous shines as Elle, with a great voice, near-perfect timing and an unfailing belief in the depth of her pink-clad character.  And the chemistry between her and Hall is crisp and layered.  You wanted to take their characters home, feed them soup and ask them how they met.

But when even a bit-part UPS guy gets a huge round of applause every time he exits, you know the play is so good it gives the opportunity for every actor to succeed.

Go see this show.  Just beware the crash from the sugar-high afterwards.

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