Elle Woods is a strange case. A real go-getter who has to get over a tendency for hitching herself to the wrong man and his rigid dreams, the Legally Blonde (★★★½) heroine seems at first easy to dismiss as an airhead. In fact, the script, both for the original Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy and Heather Hach’s book for the musical adaptation, make it too easy to side with Elle’s well-heeled beau Warner Huntington, who declares her a Marilyn, when he needs a Jackie on his arm.
Yes, Warner is crude and cruel in the way he focuses on Elle’s packaging, but he’s not wrong that she has a lot to learn about the world outside her pink, puffy cloud of sorority glee. Sending a perfume-scented headshot instead of a personal essay seems not only the wrong play for applying to Harvard Law, but a dumb move for gaining entry into any academic program.
Elle (Gabriella DeLuca), who chases ex Warner (Kaylen Morgan) from L.A. all the way to Cambridge, makes a lot of dumb moves before she starts making moves that might persuade Warner or anyone outside Delta Nu to take her seriously. In the annals of the stage’s all-time “dumb” blondes, from Billie Dawn to Lorelei Lee, future attorney Elle Woods might have the steepest road to climb to prove herself the admirable, capable woman her show cracks her up to be. The role calls for a rare moxie and shrewdness and sweetness that Gabriella DeLuca delivers in Ricky Drummond’s engaging production at Keegan Theatre.
Turning Elle’s contradictions into endearing texture, DeLuca boldly leads an energetic production that, alas, has trouble finding her a winning match. Kaylen Morgan’s Warner doesn’t register the privileged arrogance he seems to be singing about, and the matter is further confused by costume designer Alison Samantha Johnson introducing the character in a suit that reads more doorman at the Mondrian than stuck-up money. Warner’s wardrobe at Harvard does sell his preppie image, and Morgan does show a deft hand with the comic timing of Warner’s many asides throughout the nearly all-singing, all-dancing romp.
Legally Blonde is a musical more concerned than most with what might be judged by appearances. Characters talk and sing about not judging a book by its cover, or a pool boy by his fashions. So costume designer Johnson, also responsible for designing the production’s hair and makeup, plays an especially pivotal part in carrying off Drummond’s staging. Not many shows make such a production of makeovers for both the male and female leads, and Johnson’s hair and wardrobe for scruffy law teaching assistant — and Elle’s prospective Mr. Right — Emmett Forrest (Noah Israel), proves to be generally persuasive. In the case of Israel, the costuming does some of the heavy lifting for a performance that gets further along on chemistry with DeLuca than on any romantic quality in his singing.
Music director Walter “Bobby” McCoy and his pit orchestra lean into the disco-R&B vibes of the Tony-nominated score by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, a mode that keeps the mood lifted. Unfortunately, the band sounds muffled behind Matthew J. Keenan’s sets, which otherwise are great for getting characters where they need to go, and facilitating quick, humorous pop-ins through doors and windows. And Drummond and choreographer Ashleigh King keep the well-oiled ensemble on the go. Still, the dancing lacks for excitement.
Comedy rules the stage here, along with the cuteness of the two well-trained pups appearing, respectively, as Elle’s beloved pooch Bruiser, and Rufus, the adorably bug-eyed French bulldog belonging to Elle’s townie pal Paulette (Janine Sunday). Those two could easily upstage just about anybody, and yet they kindly leave room for Greg Watkins’ impressive turn as Elle’s exacting criminal law professor, Callahan; Rachel Barlaam’s consistently funny rival, Vivienne; and MK Sagastume, playing a menagerie of roles, and creating richer characters in seconds of dialogue than some do with bars and bars of choruses.
Watkins hits a highlight with Callahan’s ode to legal amorality, “Blood in the Water,” and the entire ensemble hits a homerun with “Gay or European?” But ultimately, O’Keefe and Benjamin’s score coasts its way home on a bed of reprises, leaving the impression they might have run out of steam tugging Elle Woods’ glory up the tall mountain she has to climb towards liberation.
Legally Blonde runs through September 8 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $48 to $58. Call 202-265-3767, or visit www.KeeganTheatre.com.