by Dan Solomon
You buy yourself a lot of slack when you put on a production of a musical based on the fluffiest work in Reese Witherspoon’s mostly-featherweight oeuvre. Who cares about a few technical mishaps or some onstage sloppiness when you’re being charmed by the adventures of Elle Woods as she conquers Harvard Law School?
Not this guy, and seemingly no one else at the Long Center for Summer Stock Austin’s staging of Legally Blonde: The Musical. And why would we? With songs as catchy as the infectious “Ohmigod, You Guys” and “There! Right There!”, and a book that improves on the script to a Golden Globe-nominated film, Legally Blonde is very easy to love – all you really need is a cast that’s committed to wringing every last drop of joy from a show that’s saturated in the stuff, and a director who knows how best to set them loose.
That’s what the Summer Stock Austin production offers. The, er, trials of Elle Woods (Taylor Bryant) as she goes from Delta Nu sorority girl to Harvard Law valedictorian on her own terms unfold breezily in this show. After being dumped by her boyfriend, Warner (Paul Koudouris) for the “serious” Vivienne (Kristi Brawner), Elle decides to apply herself and gets accepted into Harvard Law, where the three of them – along with classmates Emmett (Ta’ron Middleton) and Enid (Korina Lurie) – serve as interns for the intimidating Professor Callahan (Michael Fariss). When fitness queen Brooke Wyndham (Madison Piner) is accused of murder, the team relies on Elle’s particular areas of expertise, proving that being pink and girly are no impediments to being serious and smart.
Summer Stock raises its degree of difficulty a bit with this show, which features tough stuff like synchronized jump rope scenes, onstage costume changes, live animals, and dozens of performers on the stage dancing and moving at the same time, but it also hedges its bets by putting on a show whose tone makes the ever-present sound problems and occasional prop malfunctions more forgivable. Bryant and Middleton, as the primary leads, are so easy to root for – and Fariss and Koudouris, as the villains, are so easy to root against – that spending too much energy worrying about those things seems like an exercise in joylessness. Who has time to care, when there are so many people having so much fun on the stage?
There aren’t a dozen Austin productions like Legally Blonde. You don’t see many casts of 32, or complicated dance sequences that pop as a throwaway, or people acting with live dogs. There aren’t many casts of local mostly-teenagers performing this effectively on stages like the Long Center’s, either. We don’t see enough musicals that combine a book this tight (even throwaway subplots get resolved) with songs this catchy, and we rarely see shows that attempt to hit a bar this high. The fact that Legally Blondecomes pretty close is more than enough reason to celebrate.