Some movie-to-musical conversions leave you wondering "Why bother?" The 5th Avenue Theatre's recent production of Catch Me If You Can comes to mind. But then there are those rare films that are vastly improved by musical theater's cheesy conventions. Legally Blonde the Musical offers the cheap thrills of a Harlequin romance novel and the emotional depth of a soap opera, which is exactly what the doctor — or in this case the lawyer — ordered.
Becky Gulsvig charms as Elle Woods, a girl as sweet and insubstantial as the cotton candy her wardrobe resembles. She and her fellow Delta Nus, a gaggle of Juicy Couture-clad neo-Valley Girls, are living it up at UCLA. Between the scrapbooking, shopping and dreams of matrimony, there's not a drop of testosterone to be found in this sorority. Into the feminine maelstrom walks handsome Warner Huntington III (Jeff McLean), Elle's would-be fiance, who croons like an '80s pop star to the squeals of the audience, then promptly breaks her heart.
But Elle will not be deterred! With an improbable 4.2 GPA and the ability to resist the temptation of shirtless lads urging her in honeyed reggae tones to join them on spring break, Elle manages to follow Warner to Harvard Law School, with the sole purpose of convincing him that she's no Marilyn to his JFK, but rather a serious-minded Jackie.
Our heroine, Law Student Barbie, marches Into a Robin Williams-less Dead Poets Society — where VE RI TAS hangs on a wood-paneled wall and GRA VI TAS looms over the tweedy students. Not surprisingly, her bubblegum-hued garb goes over about as well as her bubble-headed mannerisms; both earn her an instant enemy in preppie mean girl Vivienne, played with patrician perfection by Megan Lewis.
Overcome by this sea of earth tones, Elle decides that navy blue is her new pink, hits the books, and lands behind the defense table of a murder case where she proves that all you need to be a successful lawyer is blonde ambition and finely honed gaydar. Who knew?
Throughout, Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's music is peppy, punchy and not terribly memorable. Their lyrics, however, are hilarious. While the only tune you'll walk out whistling is the oft-reprised "Ohmigod You Guys," you'll never forget the lyrical speculation on the crucial courtroom question, "Is he gay ... or European?"
As fun as the show is, the plot is thin, offering up more cliches than insights, into the trials of a young woman trying to make it in the competitive field of law. Though Heather Hach, who penned the original screenplay as well as the book for the musical, attempts to graft a message of female empowerment into the story arc, it never quite takes. Elle's all-consuming ditziness is so well established by Act 2 that it's quite impossible to accept her as a somberly dressed lawyer.
And the collective chatter of the Delta Nus, and indeed Elle herself, can be unendurable at times. One blonde squealing in excitement is overwhelming enough; try six at top volume for over two hours, and you'll begin to feel a migraine coming on.
Scenic Designer David Rockwell provides a simple yet splashy Malibu Elle's Dreamhouse for the cast — a good-looking bunch made up of more than a few soap opera and MTV reality show veterans. D.B. Bonds pulls off his role as a love interest from the wrong side of the tracks, "class of aught-oh-eight" Emmett, and Michael Rupert is perfectly oily as the sleazy Professor Callahan, having fun with the world's jauntiest ode to cutthroat lawyers, "Blood in the Water."
But the real gem in this jewel box of a show is Natalie Joy Johnson, who plays Paulette, a hair dresser with a Cliff Clavin accent and a romantic obsession with all things Irish.
Two adorable dogs, a high-kicking stepdance straight out of Riverdance and a cheerleading Greek chorus: Elle's avowed goal in Legally Blonde may be seriousness, but what she gives us is two and a half hours of spunky, sparkly fun.Legally Blonde the Musical is playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre through March 14.