"Legally Blonde" the musical is setting up shop at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre and it's, like, totally a world premiere. "Valley Girl" meets "The Paper Chase" in this girl-power-athon slated to move to Broadway in April. Starting this week, Bay Area audiences get to dish on the relative awesomeness of the high-gloss musical comedy first.
In case you've been living in a pop culture-free environment, this pinker-than-thou tuner is based on the hit Reese Witherspoon flick from 2001 (based in turn on Amanda Brown's novel) about a Bel Air diva who flounces off to Harvard to win back her ex. Once there, she discovers that she has way more going for her than a titanium Visa and a great blowout. How deep is that?
As in Brown's original chick-lit hit (inspired by her real-life Stanford stint, doncha know), Elle Woods is a Gemini vegetarian. Ditto her pet Chihuahua Bruiser. Matching outfits may be involved. But we digress.
Check this. When we first meet Elle, she and her sorority sistahs are so sure that her boyfriend Warner Huntington III is going to pop the question that they practically have the rock picked out. Only he drops a bomb instead. He wants a girl who knows more about jurisprudence than Juicy Couture. He wants someone less ... blond. Ouch.
"She's like 'What are you talking about? I can do anything. Hey, I've got a 4.0, I can get into Harvard' and she's got total determination about it. She's like 'I'm gonna do it' and she does it," says actress Laura Bell Bundy, who plays Elle. "She gets in, and she's like WHOA!"
The whole you-go-girl plot may seem a tad retro (see the bootylicious bend and snap move vs. oh, say, Mary Tyler Moore tossing her cap in the air), but Bundy actually sees Elle as a role model in her own right. She may start out clueless, but she ends up kicking butt.
"She proves it to Huntington," says the beyond bubbly Bundy, 25, "but she also proves it to herself, and through that journey she realizes that loving herself is more important than loving him, and she doesn't need anyone else to be happy and fulfilled and have a future."
Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell thinks the show's be-yourself theme couldn't be more relevant in the age of Britney crotch shots and Bratz dolls. This here is feminism as feel-good fairy tale. Elle may be tres trendy, but she's no airhead. This girl knows her Gloria Steinem from her "Girls Gone Wild."
"I don't know about you, but when I look around at the world today, it seems to me this is still a message that girls need to hear," Mitchell says. "I always like to have someone to root for. I like to walk out of a musical with a little bit of hope."
Pooch in tow, powderpuff on overdrive, Elle learns that self-respect feels as good as a new pair of Prada pumps (well, almost). Bundy notes that her favorite song is the Act 1 closer "So Much Better," when Elle nabs a coveted legal internship right out from under her ex.
"It's really awesome," says Bundy before breaking into notes of high-pitched ecstasy. "It's like making love with you all night/No wait this is so much better/Hello, much better/It's oh-oh-oh-oh much better."
Here, here. Certainly with Laurence O'Keefe, of the vampire musical "Bat Boy" fame, as a co-writer, "Legally Blonde" has some serious alt-theater chops.
"There's fluffiness, but there's also a strong moral core to the story," O'Keefe says. "The theme of the show is really that you need to define yourself, or other people are going to do it for you."
Lest that sound a tad high-minded, the writer quickly adds: "Our show is not trying to save the world. Our show is trying to delight the audience."
Still, O'Keefe says that suffusing the more superficial aspects of Elle's character with a sense of vulnerability was quite the challenge.
"For me, writing a show like this was darker and scarier and weirder than 'Bat Boy,'" O'Keefe says, joking that his next project will tap back into a bloodier vein.
Actually, there is some carnage in "Legally Blonde." Let's just say that the women of Delta Nu are capable of drawing blood if someone messes with their core values, i.e, don't be dissing the highlights! In the musical, the sorority is re-imagined as a Greek chorus (wink!) that lives in Elle's head.
"It's kind of, like, genius, that concept," giggles Bundy, who has the perky cute pop princess thing seriously down. "They're sort of like Elle's internal conflict."
So the question is, is Broadway ready to go blond? The timing seems right. After all, pink (Elle's signature color) is back, and feel-good escapism never goes out of style. Also, Mitchell is a veteran at the musicals-made-out-of-movies genre, having choreographed both "Hairspray" and "The Full Monty." On the other hand, the trend already may have reached critical mass (see "High Fidelity," "Mary Poppins," "The Wedding Singer"). Sigh.
"There have been a lot of films made into musicals, you know. Kinda. People are going 'Oh, you're doing another one,' " acknowledges Bundy. "But 'Legally Blonde' is done really well. All I can say is I'm pretty confident in the show."
Mitchell chimes in with similar enthusiasm. It's his directorial debut on Broadway, and he says he doesn't "really care what anybody says. I'm having a ball!"
Of course, it's Bundy who must step into Witherspoon's shoes as Elle. Does she feel pressured by the comparison? After all, this is the character that established the future Oscar winner (for "Walk the Line" in 2005) as box office gold.
"I loooooved her in the movie" version of "Legally Blonde," Bundy says. "I think she's an incredible actress, and I'm incredibly grateful for what she did in the movie because people fell in love with the character based on the movie. That's gonna be helpful to me.
"I mean, it's definitely a challenge, but I'm going to do what I think Elle would do. I'm not going to try and copy someone else."
Fer sure, Bundy is no newbie to the business. She originated the part of Amber Von Tussle in "Hairspray," waved Glinda's wand in "Wicked" apres-Kristen Chenoweth and even landed a bit part in the "Dreamgirls" movie. But Elle is her shot to prove herself as a Broadway star or flop big-time.
Much like Elle, she's got it all on the line, and she's not fazed. "I'm up for it!"
Or as Elle might say, "What, like it's hard?"
Reach Karen D'Souza at email@example.com or (408) 271-3772.
Book by Heather Hach, music and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe
If you go
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St. at Market Street, San Francisco
When: Previews start Tuesday; show opens Feb. 6 and runs through Feb. 24. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays
Contact: (415) 512-7770 or http://www.shnsf.com