No one is ever going to mistake the musical Legally Blonde, being revived at Toby’s Columbia, for great art, but it is not quite as slight an entertainment as it appears, either. Consider the plotline: UCLA sorority girl with a major in fashion merchandising (red state type) wills herself into condition to win admission to Harvard Law, and uses her persistence, cheeriness, gaydar, and clothes sense to become a promising trial lawyer (a blue state occupation), graduating at the head of her class, and marrying not the ruling class boyfriend she had chased to Harvard but instead a working-class guy who has held down two jobs to get through the school (a purple love story). There’s political stuff going on right under the surface. A show that gets liberal audiences to cheer for someone who at first blush would seem like a future Ann Romney is doing something pretty canny.
This strange effect owes a good deal to that perennial Broadway staple, pep and perkiness: the sorority girl, Elle (Jessica Lauren Ball) is irrepressible, the ruling-class counterpart of Hairspray’s working-class Tracy Turnblad, so absorbed and grounded in her identity and interests that the insults dealt by the powers she confronts cannot dent, daunt, or defeat her or even take a manic smile off her face for long. Musical audiences love heroines like that. Then, too, the powers she aligns herself with and those she confronts are both handled in ways to make blue state audiences more comfortable.
Start with her parents. "Law school is for boring, ugly, serious people," her rich father tells her, "and you, button, are none of those things." So by proving him wrong, by getting in and getting through law school, she is putting some distance between herself and the class expectations in which she was raised. Then too she is attended by the ever-supportive chorus of her sorority sisters (MaryKate Brouillet, Katie Heidbreder, Julia Lancione, and Mary Searcy), and sisterhood is powerful, not to mention feminist. She bonds with Paulette, her very working-class hairdresser (Priscilla Cuellar), too, proving that sisterhood is not just for the elite. And she deals well with sexual harassment by her professor/boss, Callahan (Lawrence B. Munsey) – not to mention the meritocratic snobbery of her romantic rival Vivienne (Elizabeth Rayca) – before turning Vivienne into another powerful sister. There’s more to this dynamic, too, but you get the idea.
So she has us all cheering for her, and we are maneuvered into a frame of mind where this unlikely heroine’s transformation into a powerful lawyer is an aspiration the audience, whatever its politics, shares with her. And we may as well go along because it’s obvious from the first, even if we haven’t seen the 2001 film the musical was based on, that that’s where she’s headed.
Of course the working out of this fantasy does not require any realism about law school or the law: some lawyer jokes (the song BLOOD IN THE WATER being an extended metaphor comparing lawyers to – what a surprise! – sharks), and a trial that requires gaydar and knowledge of hair styles to win (no suggestion what Elle would have done with a trial that turned on securities law or the interpretation of a gas and oil lease).
Also not strictly required are hummable songs. Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin’s music and lyrics are always professionally done, move the plot forward, and contain much wit, but they are so interspersed with dialogue that a lot of the time they might as well be recitative rather than songs. But this too simply does not matter. Precisely because they move the plot forward, they are fine, even if you walk out remembering not a note (and you probably won’t).
With a good ensemble, this unlikely concoction works. And for this production we get the Toby’s ensemble, a crew of talented performers who have been working together in many cases for years. This seems to be the Toby’s organization A-team. Of course the Elle must be right, and this Elle, Jessica Lauren Ball, seems born for the part, not only in voice and looks, but also in natural perkiness. I also liked David Gregory, a brooding and slightly ominous presence I’ve seen in various productions around town, who brings a perfect blend of petulance and inscrutability to the part of Nikos the sexually ambiguous pool boy, and Heather Marie Beck who has to lead an actual workout in the role of Brooke, a fitness queen on trial for murder, and then still have enough breath to engage in dialogue, an act which excited my admiration