Thanks to Reese Witherspoon's effervescent turn in the 2001 movie adaptation of Amanda Brown's novel about a blond sorority queen who follows her WASP-ish ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in the hopes of winning him back, heroine Elle Woods and her signature color have become emblematic of a potent strand in 1990s girl-powerdom: That a woman can dress her pet Chihuahua in a pink onesie and still ace the LSATs.
Yet most fans love Legally Blonde not for its hackneyed messages about being true to oneself, seizing the day, reaching for the sky, etc., etc. In fact, as a vehicle for the theme of the triumph of femininity in male-dominated ivory tower culture, it's hard to take Legally Blonde very seriously. Rather, we love Legally Blonde for its sparkly pinkness, cute comedy, and pristine Hollywood sheen. It's not for nothing, after all, that there are entire Web sites, such as the "Legally Blonde Style and Beauty Page," devoted to helping people replicate Witherspoon's look from the movie. Seething social critique might streak other popular dramatic works about women's (mis)adventures in the education system like Willy Russell's 1980 play Educating Rita and George Bernard Shaw's 1913 drama Pygmalion. But the only streaks to be found in the irrepressibly perky movie version of Legally Blonde are the ones in the sorority girls' hair.
Given both Broadway and Hollywood's predisposition toward seeing things through rose-tinted glasses, I wasn't expecting the world-premiere musical adaptation of Legally Blonde to differ much in tone from its celluloid predecessor. I thought the addition of show tunes would only serve to exacerbate the bubblegum factor. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that there's more to this all-singing, all-dancing Barbie doll than her Juicy Couture wardrobe implies.
The musical isn't so radically different from the film that it would disappoint the pashmina and stiletto brigade. Some of the scenes are lifted right out of the movie, such as the "Bend and Snap" number, where Elle helps solve her beautician friend Paulette's man problems by teaching her how to show off her best assets, and the section in which Elle turns up to a sophisticated Harvard soiree dressed in a pink satin bunny-girl outfit complete with fluffy tail and pointy ears. The suitably frothy Laura Bell Bundy, whose boundless enthusiasm and impish sense of humor match Witherspoon's, plays Elle. If you can get over the essential ugliness of the timbre, the sorority girls' high-pitched, nasal singing voices provide the perfect musical equivalent of the Valley Girl drawl. And the production is awash in pinks of every hue, from the cerise of Elle's velvet tracksuit to the candy-stripped wallpaper of Sorority House Delta Nu.
But with its prickly wit and rampaging theatricality, the musical features a broader color spectrum than the movie. Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's music and lyrics define the palette right from the start with the opening number "Omigod You Guys." With its melodic emphasis on the three syllables in "O-mi-god" and the screechy female voices, the song compactly sends up sorority girl life. Book writer Heather Hach adds emphasis to the satire with her spoof on Lassie: "She's trapped in the old valley mill?" screams sorority girl Margot in response to the yapping of Elle's pooch, Bruiser. The dog (one of two live animals to appear in the show) barks again to clarify his point. "Oh, sorry," breathes Margot in relief. "The Old Valley Mall." Even David Rockwell's scenic design, with its two-dimensional set pieces that move in and out and rise up and down like interchangeable outfits for a paper doll, suggests the girly flimsiness of Elle's world.
The interplay of music and text is consistently sharp. A syrupy, conventional love duet between Elle and her beloved Warner (that might be interchangeable with mush like Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes' "Up Where We Belong") is hilariously undercut by the vinyl-scratching silence that greets Warner's declaration that he'd like to break up with rather than marry Elle. Elsewhere, Harvard law professor Callahan's breezy-sleazy, Noel Coward-esque solo about surviving as a lawyer ("Blood in the Water") hints at the professor's soon-to-be-revealed dark side: "Now when you choose a law career/ The moment you embark/ There is that joke you're bound to hear/ "A lawyer is a shark"/ Ignore that; it's simplistic and it's dumb/ Only some of you will turn out sharks, just some/ The rest ... are chum."
It's the flagrant liberties that the musical takes with its source material that provide the greatest color, though they don't always work: The musical's deeper development of the relationship between Elle and good-guy graduate Emmett, for example, feels incoherent. We never quite understand what motivates the working-class law school whiz to help the over-privileged blonde interloper in the first place, and his constant presence at Elle's side undermines the protagonist's triumphant boast of "look how far I've come without anyone holding my hand" near the show's end.
But the musical's flights of fancy more frequently pay off. The transformation of the sorority girls into a Greek chorus whose role it is to guide Elle on her quest for love and legal prowess, and director Jerry Mitchell's staging of Elle's application "essay" (done in video format in the film) as a full-on production number with the central character parading around in a dazzling, hand-beaded majorette costume, make bold, dramatic sense. With its flamboyance and intelligent humor, the musical might actually do more for the reputation of blondes not to mention the color pink than the movie: In Mitchell's larger-than-life world, dressing a pet Chihuahua in a pink onesie and acing the LSATs actually seems plausible.
In reality, though, girl power still has a long way to go. Roughly half of the current student body at Harvard Law School might be women, but a recent study by the DRI-the Voice of the Defense Bar, the nation's largest defense bar association, reports that female attorneys still face discrimination in the courtroom and typically earn 25 percent less than their male counterparts. And, judging by the amount of hype surrounding the death, last week, of Anna Nicole Smith, our culture seems reluctant to let go of its fascination with dumb blondes. If only the stereotype could meet a similarly early grave. Wearing pink to a performance of Legally Blonde may not change the world, but it's a small symbol of solidarity. And those magenta Manolo Blahniks just look so cute.