“Legally Blonde” at the Saroyan? Meh. I give it half a snap.
The slighter the show, the more essential it is to beef it up with powerhouse performances and sheer stage appeal. (A slick and substantial production design doesn’t hurt, either.) I don’t think anyone would deny that the romp-silly “Legally Blonde” is thin when it comes to the story department (Heather Hach’s frantic book has to cram an expansive, airy Hollywood movie script into its confines) and that the songs (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin) are for the most part unmemorable (except for the robust and hummable “Omigodyouguys” opening number and the terrific first-act closer, “So Much Better”).
What has to drive this show, then, is a Laura Bell Bundy — the Broadway actress who grabbed hold of the role of Elle Woods and through a workout-caliber portrayal of sparkle and grit transcended the so-so material. That doesn’t happen in this non-Equity national tour, which continues tonight at the Saroyan Theatre. Nikki Bohne, in the role of Elle, certainly wins points for burning off a lot of calories. She hits (most of) the right notes, is vivacious and personable. But despite a standing ovation by the audience for her efforts at Tuesday’s opening-night show, hers wasn’t a performance that made this show magical.
The scaled-down production design for the tour didn’t help. (Neither did the sight of stagehands standing in the wings stage right, at least from where I could see sitting near the center of the theater, waiting to roll the beauty-shop set piece off.) One iconic moment from the Broadway production got completely lost: In the first-act finale, when members of Elle’s “Greek Chorus” join her on stage as she belts out the “So Much Better” anthem, should be on a bridge behind her when they turn to spell out “ELLE WOODS” in block-lettered sweatshirts on their backs. In this stripped-down version, the chorus simply walked on stage behind her and had to do the effect standing at her level. It was sort of like staging the Eva Peron balcony scene in “Evita” without the balcony. I’m guessing the bridge was cut for budget purposes. Not a smart move.
The sound and some of the vocals were issues, too, at the Saroyan. From where I was sitting, the sound seemed shrill at times, especially in the first act. And while Bohne can belt, she was occasionally off pitch — with “So Much Better” being the most noticeable.
There are fun moments in the show. The costumes (from the Broadway run) are expectedly sharp — and quite pink, of course, at least for Elle. Jillian Wallach is a fun, charismatic (and well voiced) Paulette, the beautician who takes Elle under her wing after Elle gets into Harvard Law School. (Wallach’s “Bend and Snap” scene is a highlight.) Nic Rouleau, as the earnest Emmett, comes closest to warming up the show in terms of its humanity. (His “Take It Like Man” song, set in an elite department store, is likewise a keeper.) And Shannon Mullen, as the exercise magnate, Brooke, who is accused of murder, is a standout in terms of vocals and comic timing.
Still, this production felt wobbly to me. It certainly didn’t match the stellar tour of “The Color Purple” that last played the Broadway in Fresno series. The show is a good outing for hardcore “Blonde” fans, I suppose. But the verdict for the rest of us is pretty much a hung jury.