Arts » Arts Features

Legally Blissful



Brothers, sisters, devoted readers, it's confession time. Your humble critic has succumbed to snobbery. How? Well, let's have a flashback. Two musical works recently hit town. One, an opera, Doctor Atomic - serious, based on history, riddled with antique poetry by dead masters trailing clouds of critical glory, telecast by the Met.

The other, a musical, Legally Blonde (at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday) - peppy fluff, extracted from a droll chick-empowerment flick, employing thespian pooches and battalions of ridiculously toned bods, once broadcast live on MTV.

Doctor Atomic, an opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars, tells of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer's moral struggle with the creation of the atomic bomb. Perhaps its most archetypal moment has the conflicted doctor's hennaed wife dolled up in the manner of a film-noir floozy, languorously sprawled on a bed singing the metaphysical poetry of John Donne while Robert is off at the lab toying with neutrons.

Huh? Like the rest of the opera, not only does the aria fail to advance the story, it also gives off the odor of intellectual pretension. The cumulative effect is akin to being hammered on the skull by a passel of monkeys.

On the other hand, I shamelessly admit I went to Legally Blonde with condescension in my heart. To quote a long-expired critic's bromide found on the walls of Pompeii, I came to jeer and stayed to cheer.

For those who don't remember the 2001 smash-hit movie on which the musical is based, it was a feminist variation on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: the not-so-dumb blonde gleefully conquering all adversity, not only to grab the gems, but also to end up with the leading man.

Whereas in the '50s, Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei sought diamonds and the daddy to supply them, Legally Blonde's Elle has updated her goals to include a Harvard degree and moral superiority, plus the leading man. While doing this, she must, like Lorelei, retain her sense of innocence and the mesmerizing skills of a snake charmer.

Frankly, the movie was engaging bubblegum, so you have to admire the fidelity of the musical's creators who upgraded the flavor with even more savory tang. Everything about the pop-rock score (by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin) is engagingly obvious and synthetic, not trying to up the movie's IQ with Sondheim-like cerebralism, but intensifying its appeal in the manner of skillful storybook illustrators. So the movie's brief joke about the sexual orientation of a dubious defendant becomes a lush production number with six styles of dance parody.

Most importantly, Jerry Mitchell's direction and choreography, embellishing Heather Hach's adept book, are models of fast-paced, captivating storytelling. As a bonus, this tour simplifies the overstuffed Barbie dream-house look of the original Broadway production, enabling it to move with cinematic flair.

Added to the other dividends is a cast, headed by Becky Gulsvig's knowingly adorable Elle, that renders cheerful plastic into rollicking flesh and blood. The best way to sum up the musical's allure is to think of the best day you ever had at a spa.

Legally Blonde Through November 23 Palace Theatre $10 to $70 216.241.6000

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