Review: ‘Legally Blonde’ at the Keegan Theatre

In this summer of our discontent – what with unchecked climate change, racist politics, and mass murders – a bit of cheer in the form of a frothy tale of a privileged white girl who, through dint of smarts, integrity, and cuteness, winds up not only happy but more privileged than ever, can be a welcome diversion. When it is as perfectly and winningly performed as Keegan Theatre’s Legally Blonde, the diversion is a thoroughly delightful one.

Noah Israel & Gabriella DeLuca (front) with the cast of 'Legally Blonde' at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Noah Israel & Gabriella DeLuca (front) with the cast of ‘Legally Blonde’ at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Based on a 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon, and set in that period, the musical follows the self-empowering journey of Elle Woods (magnetic triple threat Gabriella DeLuca) from boyfriend-obsessed, ditzy sorority girl to Harvard Law School student – her original purpose being reclaiming said boyfriend – to enthusiastic, successful young lawyer.

It takes a village to get her there, and the denizens of the village – especially hairdresser Paulette (the vocally spectacular Janine Sunday), sorority sisters/”Greek chorus”/backup trio (Emily Madden, Selena Clyne-Galindo, and Julia Klavans), and helpful, nerdy, beta-male teaching assistant Emmett (Noah Israel) – all have moments to shine, Sunday’s rendition of “Ireland” being particularly memorable.

To make a plot there must, of course, be conflict, and the primary conflicts are provided by self-important ex-boyfriend Warner (Kaylen Morgan, who sings beautifully his character’s self-important breakup song with Elle, “Serious”) and the demanding, egotistical Professor Callahan (Greg Watkins) – a not-very-nice echo of Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase –  whose “Blood in the Water” is a sharp-edged evocation of the litigator spirit.

Smaller roles get their moments too, none more riveting than the leadership by Brooke (Amanda Kaplan) of “Whipped Into Shape,” proof that a talented, well-trained ensemble can jump rope in unison and sing at the same time. “Whipped” is only one of a series of high-energy movement numbers choreographed by Ashleigh King, collectively the defining mark of the production’s excellence. The ensemble also gets a Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter chorus, “Gay or European?”, which both embraces and makes fun of gay stereotypes. Dana Nearing’s turn as a hot UPS delivery guy, complete with comic masculine swagger and knowing looks, also merits notice.

Legally Blonde gives a costume designer plenty of room to be playful and to characterize with dress, and Alison Samantha Johnson takes full advantage. Elle’s mostly pink-themed outfits are striking, none more so than the sparkly dress she is given for the curtain call. The backup trio is sexy in salmon, while the ensemble in a jail sequence gets bright orange (before it was officially the new black). There is an entire number devoted to the theme that clothes do in fact make the man – Elle’s and Emmett’s “Take It Like a Man” – featuring a quick on-stage change that takes Emmett from scruffy to sharp. Red and greenish comic wigs in the trial scene are a hoot. Matthew J. Keenan’s two-level set, with a brick motif blending well into the exposed brick Keegan space, is both attractive and functional. This is a production that looks as good as it plays.

Gabriella DeLuca (center) with (left to right): MK Sagastume, Selena Clyne-Galindo, Amber Jones, Emily Madden, Anna Maria C. Shockey, and Julia Klavans in 'Legally Blonde' at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.
Gabriella DeLuca (center) with (left to right): MK Sagastume, Selena Clyne-Galindo, Amber Jones, Emily Madden, Anna Maria C. Shockey, and Julia Klavans in ‘Legally Blonde’ at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Not surprisingly for a show emphasizing fun above all, Legally Blonde is not the place to look for anything remotely resembling realism about law schools or legal practice. The second act trial scene makes your average Perry Mason episode seem like a documentary by comparison. But somehow the truth will win out, so who cares?

There is a feminist narrative in the show, generally handled with a light touch, though including what we would now call a #MeToo moment. Initially trapped by the perception – her own, and that of others – that she is simply a silly girl, defined by her relationship to a man, Elle works through personal disappointment and professional challenges to become her own woman. It’s a nice character arc, and DeLuca navigates it flawlessly.

Legally Blonde’s music, by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, while infectious and useful in supporting the movement, does not contain any songs clamoring for entrance into the show tune hall of fame. The book, by Heather Hach, provides both obvious and subtle comic moments (my personal favorite being a reference by a department store saleswoman to a fragrance named “Subtext”) that add to the blend, well-integrated and paced under the direction of Ricky Drummond, that kept the audience smiling, laughing, and cheering throughout the evening.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Legally Blonde plays through September 8, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-265-3767 or go online.

Alexis J. Hartwick, Assistant Director; Gordon Nimmo-Smith, Sound Designer; Cindy Landrum Jacobs, Properties/Set Dressing Designer; Jason Arnold, Lighting Designer; Melrose Pyne Anderson, Swing/Dance Captain/Assistant to the Choreographer; Stephen Russell Murray, Swing

Ensemble: Rachel Barlaam, Amanda Kaplan, Victoria Clare, Dana Nearing, Robbie Duncan, Lawrence Hailes, Amber Lenell Jones, Solomon Parker III, MK Sagastume, Anna Maria C. Shockey

Pit Orchestra: Walter “Bobby McCoy (Music Director/Keyboard 1), Matthew Dohm (Keyboard 2), Paige Rammelkamp (Keyboard 3), Jacob Dalager (Trumpet), Philippe Brunet (Trumpet), Nick Kemp (Trombone), Jack Grimm (Trombone), Mila Weiss (Reed 1), Dana Gardner (Reed 2), Jaime Ibacache (Guitar), Benjamin Rikhoff (Bass), Kendell Haywood (Percussion/Drums)