Nobody’s dressed in a tux or a gown, but it’s a world premiere nevertheless.
We’re not quite on Broadway, either, but on Tenth Avenue at The 52nd Street Project Theater. But you can feel from the chatter among teachers, parents and musical theater aficionados that there’s a great deal of anticipation here.
The show we’re about to see is the first official production of iTheatrics’ Legally Blonde, Jr. – the one-hour version of the 2007 hit musical LEGALLY BLONDE – that’s the newest member of MTI’s successful Broadway Jr. Collection.
How successful? As Marty Johnson, the director of education for iTheatrics, tells the crowd, there have been 70,000 productions of Jr. shows.
Now: will Legally Blonde, Jr. be one of the most successful ones? We’ll see in this bare-bones presentation that Jacob Brent staged with 36 kids in 26 hours of rehearsal.
“I hope you like our set,” Johnson jokes, as he points to two steps and a box atop them. But didn’t Spanish playwright Lope de Vega once say that all a person needs to do theater is “two boards and a passion”? Already this Legally Blonde, Jr. has exceeded that quota.
And passion there is, as is proved by the rush to the stage by the three dozen kids who wear identical red T-shirts. “There may be a little more pink on stage when it’s actually produced,” says Johnson, which gets a laugh. Most in attendance know that pink is Elle Woods’ signature color. But the pink is provided by the kids, who are in the pink and tickled pink to be here, from Jillian Agona to Drew Waldron. The program doesn’t tell us who plays what. As Johnson tells me later, “We just list the kids alphabetically in the program before we cast the show – and that’s the way we want it. This is an ensemble doing a musical, not a situation where we want one kid to feel more important than another.”
The show begins with Elle and her sorority sisters enjoying life and singing “Ohmigod You Guys.” Some may say: would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the kids sang “Ohmigosh You Guys”? Probably not. But for better or worse, here it is.
We’re soon into the story. Bubbleheaded Elle Woods is looking forward to her date with longtime beau Warner Huntington III. She’s certain he’ll propose to her and that they’ll live happily in Cambridge, Massachusetts while he attends Harvard Law School.
No. He’s dumping her because he doesn’t feel she’s quite right for the lawyer-turned-senator that he expects to become. That devastates Elle – but only for a while. Now she’s determined to do whatever’s necessary to get into Harvard Law herself so that she can win back “her” man. And while she does get accepted to the school, she soon incurs the wrath of Professor Callahan and the scorn of star pupil Vivian Kensington. Luckily, recent grad Emmett Forrest is there to provide sympathy and guidance.
What soon becomes apparent is how ideal this material is for middle-school kids. Remember, girls who aren’t remotely near the age of 17 devour Seventeen magazine. Similarly, girls for whom high school, college and grad school seem hundreds of years away will relish the chance to grow up faster by playing these characters.
True, no middle-schooler has had a romantic relationship as serious as Elle and Warner’s. But even kids by seventh grade have had their share of puppy-love crushes. It’s a rare student who won’t understand what Elle feels.
Legally Blonde, Jr. also turns out to be valuable – yes, valuable –in teaching an aspect of life that is never too early to learn: losing a so-called love is not the end of the world. In fact, a better relationship may well be on its way to replace it.
Vivian invites Elle to a get-together, but maliciously lies and says that it will be a costume party – just so she’ll show up in some outfit that will humiliate her. In the film and on Broadway, Elle wore a Playboy bunny outfit. Here, Elle simply wears a pair of rabbit ears. Now that may be because costumes aren’t being used here; on the other hand, when you do Legally Blonde, Jr., you could have your Elle dress as a genuine, non-Playboy bunny (or anything else, for that matter). That would eliminate anyone’s concern that the scene was an endorsement of Playboy.
Legally Blonde, Jr. will also afford kids the chance to learn what most adults discovered years ago: that in everyone’s life, good times are followed by bad times — which are then followed by good times. Eventually Elle will sing that she is “So Much Better” than before – a song that your kids AND you can sing after hard times have ended and good times have resumed.
Along the way, Elle befriends Paulette, her beautician, for Elle doesn’t judge people by their social standing; anyone who’s nice is good enough for her. So when Paulette is attracted to Kyle, a UPS delivery man, Elle helps her to shelve her shyness and do what’s necessary to let him see she’s interested.
The role of Kyle, incidentally, is not one that involves song or dance. It is, however, a terrific cameo, and would be ideal for one of your school’s jocks with little or no stage experience. What’s more, a popular athlete will bring in a few new audience members, too.
We catch on that Elle will be all right before she does. Although she’s devastated to learn that Warner and Vivian are engaged, she’s buoyed soon after when she hears that Callahan has been suitably impressed with her to give her an internship. Yes, a career boost can help soothe the loss of a love.
One of the show’s most controversial moments follows: when Callahan sexually harasses Elle. Indeed, it’s been retained, although it’s a tad shorter than it was in the original show.
That may seem PG-13 or so. But when you think of it, aren’t we in a time when we’re warning our children at earlier ages that there are such things as sexual predators? (For the record, the part of the film’s plot in which a macho man is actually homosexual has been dropped for the Jr. version.)
And just when Elle starts doubting herself the most, she gets a good deal of moral support from her friends in her sorority. While such an organization occasionally comes in for some criticism, many adults will swear by the assets it provides: networking possibilities come along with the opportunities to make good friends. One of the so-called facts we learn early in life is “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” And as we make our way through life, we discover that that bromide is only half-true. Want the whole truth? It’s what you know AND who you know.
Legally Blonde, Jr. stresses that quite nicely after Elle is put on a case in which Brooke, a famed TV exercise guru, is accused of murder. The two women bond because of that sorority connection. Brooke tells Elle what really happened: she wasn’t anywhere near the murder, for she was having liposuction at the time. Of course, if her viewers learned that, they’d lose confidence in her, so Brooke is desperate to keep that quiet. She makes Elle promise that she won’t spill the beans.
This puts a great strain on Elle, because Brooke has an air-tight alibi if she’d only use it. And yet, a promise is a promise, and as much as Elle is pushed by Callahan and Emmett to come clean, she won’t. Legally Blonde, Jr. reinforces that one’s word is one’s bond, and there is a moral imperative in keeping a secret and a promise.
Because Elle won’t tell what she knows, losing the case seems inevitable. Just when all seems doomed, the “old” Elle winds up helping the “new” one: knowing details about hair permanents helps her win the case. The message is twofold: 1) knowledge is power, even the seemingly most trivial, and 2) never give up. Look for other ways to succeed, and you well may find them.
The show could just as well be called Beauty and the Brains. Elle once believed that her appearance was the most important asset she had. She comes to learn that her head is more important than her face.
Once Elle emerges victorious, Warner wants her to return to him. Notice that she is gracious in rejecting him. Elle will show your students that there’s no need to be mean in such a situation. She even expresses her gratitude to Warner for his inadvertently putting her on a path to a better life. That’s class.
On a more rarefied note, Legally Blonde, Jr. also gives kids a preview into the rigorous world of law school. Planting a seed in their heads about the intense demands of class work, homework and court work might well reinforce their need to study.
At show’s end, we discover that Vivian, once Elle’s arch-enemy, has come to admire her and has become her best friend. Perhaps this is the most valuable lesson that Legally Blonde, Jr. can impart: if someone doesn’t like you at first, it’s not a lifetime sentence. You can turn it around in time by showing the person your assets. People can eventually come to the conclusion that their first impression of you wasn’t an accurate one.
For all the lessons Legally Blonde, Jr. imparts, it’s a good deal of fun, too. The music and lyrics by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin are bright, peppy and nicely complement Heather Hach’s book. One production number is virtually all calisthenics, so you’ll be doing your kids a world of good by having them go through the paces.
After the presentation, Johnson returns to the stage to hold a Q-and-A. One teacher who presented Legally Blonde in its entirety last year says that she missed the song “Positive.” One of the kids on stage blurts out, “But it’s so inappropriate.” As Anna in The King and I sings, “By your pupils you’ll be taught.”
By the way, during that Q-and-A, someone in the audience gives out with an awfully loud sneeze. More than half the cast immediately — and as one — courteously says “Bless you.” Once again we learn that, to paraphrase Irving Berlin’s famous expression, there are no kids like show kids.
You may e-mail Peter at email@example.com. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.