Hollywood to Broadway To Milwaukee
The latest touring Broadway production to roll through Milwaukee opened last night to an appreciative audience. One of the latest big, shiny musicals to make it out of Broadway and into the big, wide world, Legally Blonde is a nice little bit of business for motion picture company MGM. The film grossed $150 million worldwide when it was released in 2001. A few years later, MGM is owned by Sony and Legally Blonde is one of a growing number of the company’s films which are being turned into big-budget stage musicals. MGM Onstage’s catalogue includes stage musicals based on: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and uhh . . .Rain Man (which the MGM website bills as “now playing in London And Israel after a successful opening in Japan.”) (?) With business being as good as it is for Legally Blonde and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, MGM is currently developing musicals based on Get Shorty, Moonstruck and The Thomas Crown Affair. My favorite upcoming MGM Onstage project has to be Weekend At Bernie’s—the musical. I could’ve made that one up, but I didn’t. Seriously.
The MGM name inevitably calls into mind the big screen MGM musicals of the past and while it isn’t fair to compare Legally Blonde to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, it’s interesting to see how far things have come. The attention to precision and detail that made the modern American musical what it is looks a bit faded in Legally Blonde. It’s a production that features some pretty good dancing, some pretty good singing and some pretty catchy songs. But while all of it is kind of fun and pleasantly enjoyable, none of it is really very impressive. The songs are all lyrically quite competent. The dancing has a hazy kind of rhythm to it. The brilliant precision that one would hope for from a touring Broadway show with a correspondingly impressive ticket price simply isn’t there. It’s a fun show , but it may not be worth it.
While the performance end of the production may lack in big-budget flash the technical end of things is really well produced. The audio only popped a couple of times and was far less intrusive than any other sound problem I’ve ever experienced with a touring Broadway show. The sound actually comes across as feeling kind of natural. The costuming is all bright and flashy, but within tasteful and somewhat realistic boundaries. The stage is framed by multi-colored light bars that add a certain visceral emotional impact to what’s going on. Scene changes happen very cinematically. What appears to be a system of heavy curtains simulate the motions of a camera as it pans around. Little bits of scenery come in and out on high-speed flies. The technical end of things is all very seamless and very well put together.
The emotional impact of the story actually ends up being kind of palpable. Becky Gulsvig plays Elle Woods—a California girl who gets dumped by her college sweetheart (Jeff McLean) on his way out to Harvard Law School. In an effort to follow true love, Elle goes of to Harvard Law and quickly discovers a love more profound through a genuine interest in practicing law. The musical manages something actually kind of rare with touring Broadway shows. Legally Blonde amplifyies The Fun at the expense of anything particularly memorable with the singing or the choreography. In the process of doing this, the show actually ends up having a kind of engaging emotional center. Gulsvig makes a connection with the audience in a space as large as the Marcus Center, which is really, really difficult to manage in a space that size on a touring production. This production gets its merit from a genuinely likeable female lead and a fanatical devotion to fun above anything more satisfying. Audiences have to decide whether or not that’s really worth the ticket price.
On the whole, the transfer from film to stage looks pretty good here. The ingenuity of the musical is at its best in those moments where it deviates from the film. The addition of a sorority “Greek Chorus,” was kind of cute. And then there was the courtroom. There really aren’t very many courtroom scenes in the film. There were enough courtroom moments in Legally Blonde that I'm now ready for a full-on courtroom musical. One moment in partcular featured by far the best comic song in the entire production . . . There's an entire song dedicated to nearly everyone in a courtroom wondering if a man on the witness stand is “Gay or European.” Very funny.