NEW YORK - Electric, unbridled, and even more lightheaded and warmhearted than the movie that spawned it,
hit Broadway last night with a goofy vengeance.
It bends. It snaps. Its leading bubblehead, magnetically unleashed onstage by super-looker Laura Bell Bundy, is the sort of girl you have to root for - a Valley-like UCLA sorority sister who loses her beau to the upward mobility of Harvard Law School, and somehow gains admission there so she can win him back.
She can't, it seems, because he's a transparent social climber now taking up with a snob classmate. What's a Harvard Law girl who lives for shopping, tanning and perfect nails to do? Beat the jerk at his own academic game. Study, study, study, and try for an internship team that will work on a big murder trial.
The 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon is well-loved, a fast-moving Rocky for the Cosmo set, yet a gentle reproach of the Cosmo set for all of us closer to National Geographic. Turning it into a robust Broadway musical makes sense, because the plot's many twists can easily be sung and danced - which they are, in a simple and catchy score with lyrics that sometimes mock the notion of lyrics. (Music and lyrics are by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin). "I'm not sure where this metaphor's goin' " a character sings, "I just felt like it had to be said."
Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell's dances, heavy with industrial-strength booty moves, complete the circuitry. Legally Blonde, when its 20-plus-member cast is dancing, is its own midtown Manhattan energy substation.
The show is basically faithful to the movie, and, in a preview performance I saw Saturday night, the audience clearly knew the movie well. People laughed in anticipation of plot swings, or cheered our heroine on - the character's name is Elle Woods - as she systematically unhinged every monkey wrench Harvard Law put in her pedicured way.
Some of Legally Blonde's best stuff is peculiar to the stage show, and it's at its best when it veers into nuttiness that a musical, not a movie comedy, allows. A dance with jump ropes is an unexpected knockout; a sudden swerve into a stylized Irish jig, a hoot. In this version, Elle's law-school savior is a lovable guy who's also overcoming his teenage-hood, in a tough Boston suburb. (The character, Emmett, is played and sung with real feeling by Christian Borle.)
The swell belter Orfeh plays Elle's hairdresser and confidante, Paulette, and Tony-winner Michael Rupert (Sweet Charity) is the surly law professor, Callahan. Richard H. Blake, the loverboy of Hairspray, is Warren, the guy Elle runs to reclaim. An appropriately high-nosed Kate Shindle is his new gal, and Nikki Snelson's the focus of the murder trial given over to the Harvard interns.
The shining star in this universe is Bundy - also an alum of Hairspray, in which she created the role of the nasty Amber in that show's love triangle. She's curvaceous, easy with a song, and zesty in a dance. Forget the show's obvious flaw: In Act 1 Elle's head is all helium and in Act 2, she's suddenly much more anchored to Earth. In both cases, Bundy's performance soars, a great big blonde joke that pays off over and over.
Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, book by Heather Hach, based on Amanda Brown's novel. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, scenery by David Rockwell, costumes by Gregg Barnes.
The cast: Laura Bell Bundy (Elle), Richard H. Blake (Warner), Christian Borle (Emmett), Orfeh (Paulette), Michael Rupert (Callahan), Nikki Snelson (Brooke), Kate Shindle (Vivienne).
Playing at the Palace, 1564 Broadway (between 46th and 47th Streets), New York. Tickets: $40-$110. Information: 1-800-755-4000 or www.legallyblondethemusical.com.