I came to Zemfira Stage’s production of Legally Blonde as a virtual newbie, having seen neither the musical nor the 2001 Reese Witherspoon comedy film on which it was based. I knew to expect some blonde jokes turned on their heads, a supremely silly take on Harvard Law School, female pop power anthems, and lots and lots of pink. But would there be any more than that?
Looking at the program, the first thing I noticed was that the entire production team were women, which felt appropriate for a show that is basically about a woman finding her strength and intelligence. There is no set designer even listed on the team, and the set, too, is nearly non-existent – just four white pillars with projected windows or other gobos (by Lighting Designer Stacy King) in between, one flat, and several movable tables and screens. Director Zina Bleck (also Zemfira’s founder), makes good use of the space, however, often having the actors marching up and down the aisle to good effect. The orchestra, conducted by Orchestra and Choral Director Annette Fakoury, is large, strong and brassy both in traditional Broadway orchestrations and in more pop-rock numbers. It is engaging to be able to see the band, but its position in front of the stage, coupled with some unfortunately serious mic problems all the way through the show, led to one of the evening’s disappointments – fairly frequently the orchestra drowned out the voices on stage. Hopefully, Sound Designer James Watkins can fix this issue soon.
From the opening number, the dancing, by Choreographer Stacy Crickmer, is well-executed, lively and strong, performed by a chorus of cute and bubbly sorority sisters. Later, there are a couple of tap numbers, one of them engagingly performed sitting down, as if nervous students were shuffling their feet. The singing is also strong and capable, but was marred by the sound issues.
The show starts out like too much pink cotton candy. It is all in good fun, but the portrayals of ditzy girls who live only for clothes, parties, and men, whose highest aim is to get engaged, wears thin quickly, even as satire. Elle (Hannah Butler) is sweet and engaging and has a nice voice, but other than a spark of spunk when she is pleasantly destroying a scheming saleswoman who is trying to fob off last year’s fashions on her, the script doesn’t give her any depth at the start. When she sings and dances her way into Harvard by appealing to the power of true love, the silliness overwhelms the satire. Her erstwhile fiancé, Warner (Peter Moses) is such an effective slimebag that it is hard to believe she can want him at all. The law school professor (Greg Carter), is slimy too, but he has a strong voice and evil manner. On the other end, the Good-Guy/Love-Interest, Emmet (James Wright) does as much as one can with that stock role.
Where the show begins to sparkle is when it, and Elle, begin to defy stereotypes. The cast is notably diverse, and several parts are cast outside the narrow limits of what one might expect. And it really begins to shine in some of the character roles. Enid, the activist law student (Peyton Moore), is a pleasant change of pace. The evil girlfriend, Vivienne (Letty Vita) brings some nice surprises, not limited to letting loose with a spectacular belting voice. Garret Willis and Scot Morgan turn out to be a hilarious comic duo. But perhaps the highlights of the evening are Stacy Crickmer as Paulette the hard-luck hairdresser, and Monty Dickson as her UPS delivery guy, Kyle. Crickmer clearly has oodles of experience, and she creates a character that lights up the stage the moment she appears. Her songs are both beautiful and hysterical. And Dickson creates more laughter simply by walking down the aisle and across the stage than many actors can hope to achieve in an entire evening. In a show replete with girls in short skirts using their assets to attract men, he is a breath of fresh parity – a display of male pulchritude that is both delicious and satirical.
And, to top it all off, there are dogs (Honey and Dusty) — two utterly adorable spaniels who sit patiently and consent to be carried around, stealing scenes simply by being there. Don’t miss Honey’s costume in the final number – it is almost worth the ticket price in itself.
As fluffy as it seems at first, this is a show with some serious undertones, involving women’s underestimating themselves, defining themselves by the men in their lives, and having to contend with not being taken seriously and even with #metoo moments. These problems are overcome by female intelligence and solidarity. The women behind this production prove adept not only with the gloss and giggles but with the grit underneath.
Legally Blonde starts out as fizzy soda pop and matures during the evening into more sophisticated pink champagne. It is worth raising a glass.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Legally Blonde, presented by Zemfira Stage, plays through August 18th, 2018, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2, at The James Lee Community Center Theater, 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, VA 22042. For tickets, purchase at the door (cash or check only). Tickets can be reserved in advance by email ([email protected]) or phone (703-615-6626).