Level Ground’s game effort at campy musical has energy but no excitement
KD Studios Theater, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 180. Through June 23.
Ambition is a good thing in theater. Thinking you can take an epic novel like Les Miserables and turn it into a three-hour musical takes nerve. (Even if you don’t like the show, it’s huge.) So when scrappy Level Ground Arts announced it would take on the regional premiere of Legally Blonde, now playing weekends at KD Studios Theater, I gave them credit for aiming high. The show isn’t deep but it is frothy and entertaining, with catchy if unmemorable songs, fast-cutting scene changes (and lots of them) and a Pepto-splash of hot pink to drown the eye in garishness. Ideally, it will, if nothing else, look like the Hello Kitty factory on overtime.
But while LGA’s production has a degree of energy, what it doesn’t have is the polish or excitement such a faboo musical demands. Philosophically, man’s reach must exceed his grasp, but when it happens in theater, it just looks disastrous.
Based on the Reese Witherspoon movie comedy, it’s a confectionary romance about perky SoCal girl Elle Woods (Kim Borge) who gets dumped at graduation from UCLA by her pompous boyfriend Warner (Keith J. Warren), on his way to Harvard Law and a career in politics that requires a “serious” spouse worthy of D.C. cocktail parties. Elle follows him, surprising everyone with her legal acumen and realizing she doesn’t need Warner anyhow. (The desire to include a verse of “I Will Survive” must have seemed nearly irresistible to the composers.)
Even at its best, Legally Blonde is hardly a classic, though I have enjoyed two productions of it (on Broadway and its national tour). But LGA’s version, despite a cast of nearly 30, is fatally scaled down. Elle’s consumerism is at the heart of much of the comedy; her titanic wardrobe alone garners a chuckle. But here, despite numerous costume changes, the clothes look tacky, the sparse sets colorless and flimsy (a department store scene, meant to wow Elle’s humble new boyfriend, looks more like a yard sale than the men’s shop at Barneys). What a boon a utilitarian, painted backdrop could have been to set the tone and evoke peppiness more than the black upstage wall in scenes where a single chair serves as the scenery.
Legally Blonde needs to burst like a piñata, spreading its candied good will over the audience in a sugary orgy. There are so many times when all that’s really needed for a scene to work is a spark between actors, but the cast has energy, though no excitement. When singing his break-up song to Elle, Warren barely glances at her, scanning the audience as if playing to the balcony; Borge doesn’t seem to notice, looking disengaged. Dreadful sound problems plagued the opening night performance, but the cast did little to make up for them. Why don’t actors project anymore?
The less experienced cast members could take lessons from Sara Shelby-Martin, who plays the blowsy cosmetician Paulette. With or without a mike, Shelby-Martin’s strong, searing voice can be heard clearly in the lobby … and her big solo is a ballad! Sometimes, ensemble members do great with improvised business that gets laughs; other times, they overdo trite moves that grow quickly tired. On the hilarious number “There! Right There!,” where Elle tries to decide whether a witness is “gay or European,” Magdiel Carmona flicks at his hair so much, I thought he was swatting at head lice.
Even without feedback on the microphones that threatened to crack the walls, a chorus sometimes too timid to hear and line flubs and missed cues that are every actor’s nightmare, this Legally Blonde would benefit from fewer (and better cast) actors and a more sophisticated execution. Objection sustained. Move along, counselor.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 8, 2012.