Dilettante: 'Blonde' charms Ogunquit

Posted Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: 'Blonde' charms Ogunquit

Rather than write a boring admissions essay, Elle Woods (played by Becky Gulsvig, top) dances her way into Harvard Law School with the help of her college friends.

by Jan Brennan

OGUNQUIT — A person wrongly accused of murder, a student sexually harassed by a professor, a woman coping with years of mental abuse by her partner ... do these and other issues sound like the basis for a fun musical comedy?
 
Yes, yes and yes — if that musical is "Legally Blonde," now playing at the Ogunquit Playhouse.
 
The magic of musical theater performs an alchemical change on these dark themes, turning them into a fast-paced confection that fools the audience into thinking they are watching something light and frothy and oh-so-pink. The audience bought it, and so did I. The result is glitzy eye-candy, and laugh-out-loud funny.
 
If you remember the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, you know the plot: Ditzy blonde co-ed gets dumped by her boyfriend, then stalks him to Harvard, where she eventually gets over him, snags the coveted internship with her law professor, wins the big court case, and most importantly, learns to be true to herself. The musical's witty script by Heather Hach and even wittier song lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin use this formulaic story as a framework for skewering everyone from vacuous Valley Girls to self-important lawyers to humorless humanitarians. Further livening up the story are dance numbers ranging from hip hop to a marching band to a Riverdance spoof.
 
Director Marc Bruni, basing this production on the original Broadway direction and choreography of Jerry Mitchell, sets the pace almost dizzyingly fast, and the large and excellent cast kept up flawlessly, even through some opening-night glitches with stuck sets and a bad microphone. Clever double-sided sets by Robert Andrew Kovach and colorful lighting by Richard Latta add to the razzle-dazzle.
 
Starring as Elle Woods, the lead role, is Becky Gulsvig, who played the part for two years in the first national tour of "Legally Blonde." She is adorable as the perky beach babe who decides to move east, "where all the girls have different noses," and become the serious woman her ex-boyfriend wants — "somebody who wears black when nobody's dead." She is just as likeable once she dons the navy-blue business suit and turns herself into a legal eagle with a heart of gold.   
 
Sally Struthers plays her hairdresser and friend, Paulette. She brings a sweet vulnerability and poignancy to the role, playing the character less as the clueless loser portrayed by Jennifer Coolidge in the movie and more as Elle's older, wiser friend who's been wounded by life's arrows but remains gamely open-hearted. Thinking of her primarily as a TV sitcom actress, I was surprised by the strength and beauty of her singing voice in the touching and funny song "Ireland" — and by her agility when doing the famous "Bend and Snap" move, which she executed with more grace and flexibility than some of the dancers half her age!

The male leads likewise are perfectly cast: Matt Ragas is appropriately drop-dead gorgeous as Elle's ex, Warner; Barry Anderson is likeable as her true love, Emmett; and Michael Rupert is convincingly intimidating as Professor Callahan — and what a voice! Speaking of impressive voices, how does Coleen Sexton, as the accused murderer/aerobics instructor Brooke Wyndham, manage to sing so well while continuously jumping rope? (Kudos to choreographer Rusty Mowery for getting the jump rope to freeze in mid-air.)
 
Among the smaller parts, Ken Arpino and Christopher Messina had the audience howling with their over-the-top portrayals of boyfriends in the hilarious number "There! Right There!," in which the courtroom cast tries to figure out whether the murder victim's pool boy is "gay — or European." Also camping it up to the great delight of the audience was Dan LoBuono is his dual role as Paulette's trailer-trash ex (sucking in his gut at the sight of Elle) and the sexy UPS guy in brown shorts (and oh, how he carries those boxes!, with a wink and a nod to "The Full Monty.")

I had expected Bruiser the Chihuahua and Rufus the bulldog to steal the show. But cute and well-trained as they are, that honor goes to the eight sorority sisters of Delta Nu. Their high-energy dancing and singing (and squealing) open the show in the lively song "Omigod You Guys," and they set the tone of goofy good humor that continues to the final curtain. Three of those sisters — Tiffany Engen, Maggie Taylor and Brit West — accompany Elle to Harvard as figments of her imagination. Wearing grey-toned versions of their "real life" clothes so that they look like an old black-and-white movie, they function as a comedic Greek chorus and add sparkle (despite their drab outfits) to every scene they are in.
 
This show is cheeky, very funny, and an all-out delight, and the appreciative audience was on its feet even before the leads took their bows. As the lazy days of summer come too quickly to their end, what a treat it is to get in one more great night of summer theater with a show that's as sweet and fizzy as an ice-cream soda. Take your kids, drag your husband, or gather your girlfriends in their best Malibu-Barbie pink sundresses and see "Legally Blonde." You'll be glad you did.
 
"Legally Blonde" runs through Sept. 17 at the Ogunquit Playhouse. For tickets:  (800) 982-2787, or www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.

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