Since the seventies, despite its drop in popularity at the movies, the American musical continues to thrive on stage. In fact, not only has it maintained an audience, but since the new millennium, houses have actually increased. Stories told through song and dance are the undeniable leaders of the New York box-office, and because of this, Broadway theatre managers are constantly in search of something new to book for their theaters, particularly shows with instant marquee value.
Well-known revivals are one way of filling that gap. Another is to reverse the Hollywood tradition of turning a show into a film by taking a hit movie and turning it into a musical. It’s a sound business decision and it may get instant name recognition, but the overall success rate has been minimal. Stage musicals such as Footloose, Dirty Dancing and Flashdance proved to be mediocre at best, and hardly Broadway worthy, but something unexpected occurred in 2007 with Legally Blonde. Even though the 2001 film initially appeared as an unlikely vehicle for a Broadway show, after adding a pop/rock score, followed by several successful out-of-town tryouts and positive audience receptions, the musical moved to Broadway and opened big. To date, Legally Blonde The Musical has not only become a global hit, but has proved to be a winner in regional theatres across the country on a grand scale.
For obvious financial reasons, and the limited size of Spotlight Youth Theatre’s stage area, this scaled-back production in Glendale may not have the grand scale or the expensive look of scenes seen before – no windows to open at the front of UCLA’s sorority Delta Nu, no upper and lower set levels – but the production shows continuous creativity within its budgetary constraints by the inventive ways it presents its story.
Look stage left and you’ll see how the addition of an appropriately designed front unhooked from the house wall turns Elle’s slightly elevated corner student room into a minivan home on wheels, while stage right opens up to reveal Paulette’s Hair Affair salon, complete with shelves and hair salon products, plus windows and a doorway entry. There’s also the subtle though effective touch of screen projection on fake windows used to its most creative potential during the Blood in the Water number when the bloodthirsty Professor Callahan (a well cast Jeremy Bassham) tells his class of new law students what it takes to be a cut-throat lawyer. As he sings, small, silhouetted images of sharks behind him float from window to window, and when Elle (Addison Bowman) is ruthlessly ejected from the room, black, inky blood is spilled and floats from the water’s surface, sinking to the ocean floor below.
What the show lacks in costly production values is surpassed in several ways by the high-energy of the talented, youthful ensemble, some of whom will no doubt go on in the hope of making theatre a professional career. True, almost all of the cast were not even born when the 2001 movie was released, and, curiously, the show itself is in danger of becoming a period piece rather than having a present-day setting – talk of workout VHS tapes selling for $19.99, Lifetime Original Movies, Callahan claiming he doesn’t speak MTV, having Richard Simmons as a neighbor, and even Paulette’s funny line after witnessing the imaginary Greek Chorus of “I see dead people,” will soon be in need of an explanation to a new generation of theatre performers, if it hasn’t already – but the Spotlight youth ensemble appear completely at home in these fast aging turn-of-the-new-century roles.
Legally Blonde The Musical’s major strength was always the energy and athleticism behind the singing and dancing, even if the songs themselves tended to fade quickly once delivered, with the obvious exception of Omigod You Guys whose upbeat, catchy theme is repeated so often it doesn’t allow you to forget it. And so it is here with this youth production. It’s one thing for a cast of future theatre hopefuls to be given the opportunity to appear in Broadway musicals with a professional approach, as Spotlight always aims to offer, but it’s another to benefit from the talent and experience of two seasoned valley-based professionals as directors, Mark and Lynzee 4man. Both Mark and Lynzee have worked with Spotlight before in the capacity of choreographer and music direction, but here the husband and wife team have complete creative control over all aspects, and it’s their specialty of song and dance that elevates all production numbers.
It was almost two years ago when Lynzee herself appeared as fitness queen Brooke in the outstanding Arizona Broadway Theatre production, and her familiarity with the show clearly benefits Spotlight’s production. As both choreographer and co-director, Lynzee appears to have pushed the cast to its fullest potential as dancers, while husband Mark as music director and co-director has drawn powerful voices to the cast’s best abilities. Only some minor blocking issues mar their direction. By having the judge’s bench in the trail scene squarely facing the audience and not slightly angled, the witnesses appear practically swallowed by the stand. Plus, earlier, when boyfriend Warner (Jacob Herrera) takes Elle (Addison Bowman) to a restaurant in order to dump her, they should be the focus, but their table is shadowed by another table with diners before them. Audience members seated extreme house left have to look through the more prominent table and its occupants in order to see Warner and Elle.
The three sorority sisters comprising Elle’s Greek Chorus, Margo (Ava Tyson), Serena (Maya Weber) and Pilar (Alyssa Armstrong) are great, bouncy fun, as is Paulette (Lily Castle) and her Irish dreamboat UPS courier with the oversized package and uniform shorts tighter than an Australian football player’s kit (Joey Grado), all of whom appear on stage appropriately older than their years. Jacob Herrara’s Warner impresses, while Addison Bowman shows all the right comedic chops required to give her Elle Wood life. If, with the right training, she can lower her speaking voice, then coupled with her proven singing and dancing abilities, Addison will be a genuine musical comedy triple threat.
But it’s Sam Primack as the likable Emmett who comes across as the show’s most natural performer. Having watched Sam grow throughout the past few years on stage at both Valley Youth Theatre and here at Spotlight with rarely a misstep, it’s Sam more than most who at this point possess what’s required to take the next theatrical step.
The last few years has seen several local productions of Legally Blonde The Musical in the valley; this column alone has covered at least four, plus the national tour, and now it’s the show that closes Spotlight Youth Theatre’s ambitious and varied 2016/2017 season. The story of California sorority girl Elle Woods and her move from the fun of the west-coast sun to the east in order to prove to the boy who just dumped her that she can also be a serious Harvard law student remains little more than cotton candy with no nutritional value whatsoever. But, if done well, it’s the good nature and overall silliness that always wins. Spotlight has embraced the lovable nonsense as tightly as it can, which is exactly what should happen in order for the fluffy pink musical comedy to work, and it’s here, with the collaboration of the experienced 4man’s leadership behind every aspect, where it truly does.
Pictures courtesy of Joanne Wastchak