The undisputed star of Walnut Street Theatre’s Legally Blonde: The Musical arrives about ten minutes into the show, and displays the kind of winning personality and impeccable comic timing that instantly capture an audience’s heart.
Mind you, I don’t mean Kathryn Brunner, who plays sorority president-turned-serious Harvard Law student Elle Woods. I’m talking about Frankie.
Frankie, the chihuahua appearing as Elle’s beloved canine companion Bruiser, hails from Meriden, Connecticut. His Playbill bio states that “he is an example of how rescue dogs can be stars.” I’ll say. He manages to act his human costars in this relentlessly charmless juggernaut right off the stage.
10 years later
When I first encountered this bubblegum-pink adaptation of the 2001 film on Broadway a dozen years ago, I found it as peppy and persuasive as its source material. The score, by husband-and-wife team Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe, supplied effortless earworms you couldn’t help but hum. (Try getting the opening salvo, “Omigod You Guys,” out of your head.) Heather Hach’s libretto retained the screenplay’s snappiest lines without seeming like a carbon copy. It was the rare crowd-pleasing winner that didn’t seem pitched squarely to the lowest common denominator
What a difference a decade makes. Watching director/choreographer Richard Stafford’s manic production, the material’s tone-deafness struck me as it never had before. Although the main plot focuses on the story of a woman who discovers her self-worth, the surrounding material is awash in cringey clichés about gender, sexuality, romance, and power.
Witless and sexist
At the risk of sounding like a humorless killjoy—actually, I don’t much care if I do—it sickened me to watch the sea of mostly heterosexual audience members spilling into the aisles with laughter over a song called “Gay or European?” The witless number makes a stereotypically flamboyant queer character the butt of the joke for smirking straight spectators. The character’s final swish off the stage elicited roars—but the audience was laughing at him.
The musical also doesn’t shy away from suggesting that while Elle finds actualization through her study of law, she also can’t be complete without the love of a good man. Yes, she trades grinning jerkface Warner (Sean Thompson, who seems to confuse posing with acting) for endearingly sweet Emmett (the shamelessly mugging Elliott Styles), but she hardly has a moment where she seems content just to be with herself. She’s either in pursuit of a love lost or tumbling into a newfound entanglement. The same can be said of her ditzy but kindhearted friend Paulette (Rebecca Robbins), whose sole character motivation involves wooing an Irish UPS driver.
The American Idol school
Perhaps the problematic politics wouldn’t feel so glaring if they were coupled with knockout staging. But from Peter Barbieri’s tacky sets to Jack Mehler’s garish lighting design, this one’s an unrelenting eyesore.
Stafford’s dance routines resemble a low-impact aerobics class, and he comes from the American Idol school of directing—content to push his performers to the lip of the stage where they can belt their tunes straight into the auditorium, with no regard for the notion that scene partners might exist. I spent much of the first act wondering who the far-off person was everyone kept singing to.
At least that question kept me from focusing too much on the singing, which was often shockingly blunt. Among the principals, only Robbins exhibits a voice with pleasing style and an actual understanding of pitch. As the conceited and predatory Professor Callahan, Paul Schoeffler displays a hefty bass-baritone, but he tends toward flatness both vocally and dramatically. And for all the clear commitment she brings to her role, Brunner can’t overcome her instrument’s harsh timbre.
In case you forget…
On opening night, the vocal shortcomings were compounded by astonishingly sloppy playing from the orchestra. This began with tuning issues and a noticeable lack of coordination during the brief overture, and continued throughout the night. Like most musicals today, the production featured merciless overamplification—which at least served to drown out the incessantly chatty audience.
At some point in the interminable second act, my eyes traveled to the proscenium arch, where a hot-pink banner proclaimed the name of the show in big bold letters. I guess it’s there in case anyone forgets what they’re seeing. (I hope this becomes a trend—I’d love to see “The Iceman Cometh!” emblazoned above Harry Hope’s bar.) But what about the folks like me who want to forget?
Oh well—at least there was Frankie. Since he has no lines, he manages to escape unscathed.
What, When, Where
Legally Blonde: The Musical. By Heather Hach, Laurence O’Keefe, and Nell Benjamin. Directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford. Through July 14, 2019, at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons wishing to purchase wheelchair seating should call (215) 574-3550, ext. 6, rather than ordering online. There will be an open-captioned performance of Legally Blonde: The Musical on Sunday, June 9, at 7pm, and an ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance on Wednesday, July 3, at 8pm.