Saturday, September 8, 2007

Blonde on bland

I may be late to the party, but I've finally seen Legally Blonde: The Musical. Well, okay, full disclosure: I only saw half of the show. (The first half, thank you very much.) So this is really only a half-review... I think I saw plenty, but your mileage may vary.

While we're making disclosures, I should also admit that I have never seen the motion picture Legally Blonde. Not even half of it. I may be the only female of my generation who can say this, and I'm not really sure how I missed it, but I did. Still, I didn't think it should matter -- surely the musical was made to stand alone? -- and for the first three minutes, it didn't. I loved the opening number, entitled "Omigod You Guys" and performed by a crowd of sorority girls. Catchy tune, witty lyrics, and a chorus that made me laugh. The actors playing the Delta Nus are energetic and engaging, and each one has clearly developed a personality for her sorority sister. I was really ready to dig this show. And then the central character, one Elle Woods, makes her dramatic entrance, and the show seems to stall. The song meanders, and it's a relief when the charismatic chorus rushes back onstage to sing the refrain (even though the joke is already wearing thin). The next few scenes come and go, and soon enough we're at Harvard and I still haven't seen anything to make me care about Elle, or what happens to her there, or whether she gets together with Warner. Their scene together (Elle thinks he's proposing, he thinks otherwise) gave me no real insight into either character or the strength of their bond; the song they sing together is funny (or, rather, Laura Bell Bundy's performance is funny), but it definitely isn't good. And for me the less intimate scenes in the Delta Nu house only established that Elle is the least interesting of the girls who live there. So I had a hard time understanding why everyone else seems to care so much about her, or why she deserves to be the lead character in everyone else's life.

I guess I should have done my homework before I showed up, because the musical assumes that we audience members have arrived well acquainted with Elle's charms, and already thrill to the sound of her name. "Elle Woods" meant nothing to me, and so I was hoping for something -- a memorable spotlight number, a revealing dialogue, a moment of intimacy -- to make me embrace her as a heroine. I know all that is easier to establish in a movie. But easy or not, it needs to happen, and it seems like bad dramaturgy to rely on Reese Witherspoon to lay the groundwork.

None of this is Bundy's fault; she works hard to find a firm foothold in the material she's given. But I was much more interested in watching a number of the very hardworking chorus members developing their characters -- standouts include Enid, the butch activist 1L student (Natalie Joy Johnson), and the slutty sorority sister, who I believe is named Shandi and played by Nikki Snelson. (If I'm right about that, I'm sorry I didn't stick around to see Act Two, when I would have seen more of Snelson in another role.) Noah Weisberg, understudying Christian Borle in the role of Emmett, also has loads of appeal (but then, I've always been a sucker for boys with big curls), and Kate Shindle is a strong, icy presence as Vivienne, Elle's rival for Warner's affections. But Elle and Warner remain cardboard cutouts, at least for those of us who haven't made their acquaintance on film. (And I should mention that, from what I could tell, the over-50 audience members had the under-35s outnumbered two to one, at least. So you can't tell me I was the only one meeting Elle for the first time.) And, of course, the dogs upstaged everybody.

The biggest problem, for me, was that the songs just weren't good. "Omigod You Guys" gets things off to a strong start, and Orfeh's comedy number, "Ireland," is another reasonably bright spot. But otherwise the first act is a wash of forgettable tunes that gesture toward contemporary pop but fail to match the Top 40 in catchiness or depth. The rest of the Broadway-musical components are in place: fluid staging, attractive choreography, talented cast, smart set design. But characters in a musical assert themselves through song, and if the songs fall flat, so do the characters. And it's especially hard to justify musicalizing a movie if the music doesn't hold its own.

So, when intermission came, I didn't jump up out of my seat, grateful for freedom, as I have done once or twice in the past. (Of course, it seems like, whenever I see something truly terrible, it's intermissionless.) I thought about staying for the second act. The final number was energetic enough to make me want to stick around; any time the chorus was onstage, I was convinced that the show really wanted to be liked, and I really wanted to like it. But, I thought, do I want to know what happens next? Do I care about any of these characters? And I had to admit, no, I didn't. And did I want to hear more songs, knowing that they were very unlikely to improve on what I'd heard so far? No, I definitely didn't. I did kind of want to see more of those doggies, but I weighed my options and decided that wasn't worth another hour or so of my night when I could be watching baseball on TV with my fiance. (I didn't particularly want to know what happened to the Yankees, either, but the promise of company was a draw.) So I left. Incidentally, it was on my way home that I passed the O'Neill and considered spending the rest of my evening with a more successful pop score. But I decided I'd had enough for one night.

Now I see that MTV is planning to film and broadcast a performance (well, actually, three performances) of Legally Blonde. This strikes me as a bad idea, since I would think that a music-oriented television station would want to pick something that had, you know, good music. But it doesn't matter what I think, since even I am too old to get a free ticket to the taping, falling as I do just outside the target 15-25 age range. But here's what I want to know -- if the show's demographic is ages 15-25, why was the audience full of middle-aged people and senior citizens the night I saw it? Who is convincing these people to see this show? I even saw an older couple, straight out of "vaguely European" central casting, informing an usher, "We are for the first time visiting New York." And somebody talked you into seeing Legally Blonde? I wanted to ask. Really? The show isn't embarrassing, but it's not The One to See, either. Especially if you're in your 70s. It was one of those moments when I wanted to say, Listen, if you are for the first time visiting Broadway, you should know: it gets so much better than this.

No comments: