EmptyPalace Theatre, New York
It's probably fitting that so many recent film comedies are being transformed into Broadway shows because these mostly shallow efforts essentially feel like musicals with the songs cut out anyway. The latest example of the trend is "Legally Blonde," adapted from the Reese Witherspoon movie about a shallow California girl who finds true love and her own empowerment at Harvard Law School. But while this musical version suffers to some degree from the lack of a star presence at its center, it actually represents an improvement over its schematic inspiration.
Very much in the "Hairspray" (successful) and "The Wedding Singer" (not so much) mode, "Blonde" takes the template of its source material and enlivens it with a procession of bouncy musical numbers and emotive ballads. The already broad situations and characterizations are further caricaturized, not that it makes much of a difference.
That it all works as well as it does is a testament to the skillfully condensed book by Heather Hach, the jaunty musical score by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin and the inventive, fast-paced direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. The opening number, in which a corps of sorority house girls performs a song titled "Omigod You Guys" in a manner recalling "Bye, Bye Birdie," sets the fun, breezy tone for the 2 1/2 hours to follow.
Laura Bell Bundy, who has had experience playing to full houses of teenage girls with her stint as Glinda in "Wicked," ably inherits the central role of Elle Woods, the pink-obsessed heroine who enrolls at Harvard to win back the affections of her boorish, blue-blooded boyfriend, Warner (Richard H. Blake). There, she comes into her own, using her unique smarts to help defend a self-help exercise guru (Nikki Snelson) accused of murder and finding true love with a nerdy fellow student (Christian Borle), whom she naturally transforms into an Armani-clad hunk with a department store makeover.
Hach's book skillfully reprises the comic highpoints of the film version, and while no one will mistake the broad humor for Noel Coward, it's probably even more amusing than it needs to be.
O'Keefe and Benjamin's score is stronger lyrically than melodically, but it gets the job done, and such numbers as "Gay or European," in which the sexuality of a key witness is hilariously debated, and "Ireland," which surprisingly manages to find fun in yet another spoof of Irish dancing, are even better than that.
Bundy lacks the formidable steeliness and star presence of Witherspoon's Elle, but she's a delight in her own right, and her powerful singing and lithe dancing add a crucial dimension. Among the supporting players, Michael Rupert provides just the right dosage of smarm as a lecherous law professor, Borle is highly appealing as Elle's new love interest and Richard H. Blake and Kate Shindle ooze arrogance to great comic effect. Best of all is Orfeh as Elle's beautician best friend, who finds true love with a hunky UPS man (Andy Karl).
Making his Broadway directorial debut, Tony-winning choreographer Mitchell ("Hairspray," "The Full Monty") delivers a sprightly staging that never lags in energy or inspiration. Particularly enjoyable is the Greek chorus of sorority sisters who pop in periodically to musically comment on the proceedings.
David Rockwell's candy-colored sets and Gregg Barnes' outlandish costumes further add to the fun, as do the crowd-pleasing appearances by Chico, as Elle's trademark Chihuahua, and Chloe, as a lovable bulldog.
Music/lyrics: Laurence O'Keefe, Nell Benjamin
Book: Heather Hach
Director-choreographer: Jerry Mitchell
Scenic designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designers: Ken Posner, Paul Miller
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Elle: Laura Bell Bundy
Emmett: Christian Borle
Callahan: Michael Rupert
Warner Huntington III: Richard H. Blake
Vivienne: Kate Shindle
Brooke Wyndham: Nikki Snelson