Inspired by Amanda Brown’s novel, and the film in 2001, which starred Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, “Legally Blonde,” the musical, has been around since 2007. With quotable dialogue by Heather Hach, and effervescent music and lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe, the musical has already become a favorite among Broadway fans who can identify with the sassy characters and triumphant plot. Who wouldn’t want to live vicariously through Elle Woods, a 4.0 UCLA graduate of fashion merchandising, who bests not only her ungrateful ex-boyfriend, Warner, at his own game as a law student at Harvard Law School, but grows to value her self-worth and become a celebrated courtroom attorney?
The Candlelight Pavilion’s production of “Legally Blonde,” which will run through July 14th, is their best yet of the 2018 season. It is a total winner worthy of valedictorian acclaim for being a sprightly affair that is deliciously complemented by a satisfying multi-course meal. Set-designer and director Chuck Ketter has created one fantastic set piece after another (e.g., UCLA sorority house, classroom, courtroom, shower/bathtub, and more) and has let his actors be unfettered and charmingly humorous with each other. Choreographer Alison Keslake has supported Rod Bagheri’s ace musical direction with an unrelenting vivacity that pops just as visually as Steve Giltner’s pink lighting does, and costume coordinator Merrill Grady ensures that Elle looks absolutely empowered in her signature pink (and navy blue) outfits.
As the iconic Elle Woods, who is virtually on stage the entire time, Callandra Olivia gives a Broadway-caliber performance that would make Laura Bell Bundy, the originator of the role in the musical, proud. Doubtless to say, the overall merit of the show rests on Olivia’s shoulders, and never once does she slump; instead, she owns it by performing with infectious panache, including a naturalistic acting ability to go along with elite vocals. From dulcetly sung ballads like the title song and “Find My Way/Finale,” to more resoundingly sung numbers such as “Omigod You Guys,” and “So Much Better,” Olivia is effortless in her pitch-perfect accuracy, even while she swings her arms and spins with her Delta Nu sisters, comprised of Emily Chelsea, Christianne Santiago, and Taleen Shrikian. Much of the ensemble, for that matter, shines, especially dressed as the blue-and-gold UCLA Bruin marching band/cheerleaders, who unflaggingly appeal on behalf of Olivia’s Elle to the Harvard Law Advisory Board, in “What You Want.”
Like Olivia, Molly Stilliens is rousingly memorable as the personable but shy hairdresser, Paulette. Wearing a sparkling, flowery blouse, Stilliens brings a genuineness and maturity to the role that resonates with the sensibilities of the observer. She is highlighted by not just her terrific comic timing, particularly during her mostly non-verbal exchange with the beefcake UPS employee, Kyle – who is perfectly portrayed by Nic Olsen, whose great delivery (pun intended) doesn’t go unnoticed – but is capable of consistently hitting stunning notes, as in when she sings of her love of Irish men in “Ireland,” and of seductive body language in “Bend and Snap.”
In addition, Katie McGhie is quite notable as Brooke, a famous exercise guru accused of murdering her husband, who is coincidentally represented by her fellow Deltu Nu sister in Elle. McGhie impresses from the moment she is introduced as Brooke at the start of Act II, during “Whipped Into Shape,” when she does a complicated jump-rope routine with the company, and yet seems to grow more powerful vocally as the number progresses. Rounding out the female principals is Tara Shoemaker as Elle’s adversary, Vivienne, who plays off Olivia well with a jealous antagonism before making her redemptive transformation with an invigorating vocal belt in “Legally Blonde Remix.”
Although “Legally Blonde” is renowned for being a female-centric show, the males more than hold up their end of the bargain in this production. They are led by Jordan Killion’s pleasant turn as Emmett, a law-school teaching assistant and Elle’s best friend. Killion is tremendously likable, charismatic, and is remarkable for his poignant tonality, which is emphasized in “Chip on My Shoulder,” in his melodious back-and-forth with Olivia during the inspiring “Take It Like a Man,” and in the touching title song.
Not to mention, Matthew Malecki is delightfully discourteous as Warren, Elle’s former boyfriend, who ultimately gets his comeuppance by being outfoxed by Elle and his law school peers. Moreover, Ron Hastings is unequivocally believable as the intimidating and sometimes unfair Professor Callahan, who urges his students to activate the jurist savages inside themselves during the hauntingly sung “Blood in the Water.”
Of the ensemble males, Rodrigo Varandas and Michael Gonzales respectively offer a passionate interplay as Nikos, Brooke’s well-groomed pool boy, and Carlos, his spurned boyfriend, which is brought to light via Elle’s ingenious courtroom sleuthing during the humorous number, “There! Right There!” Last, but not least, John McGavin, who is becoming a Candelight Pavilion staple, deserves ample recognition for being the quintessential professional, who, at one point during Act I, goes from being Elle’s father, to the stubborn Harvard Law head admissions advisor, to an arrogant student.
All in all, the Candlelight Pavilion, which has already scored very high marks this season with “Ragtime,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” has its strongest show to date in 2018 with “Legally Blonde.” Many might be surprised that an ostensibly “bubblegum” musical would earn this distinction, but in this version the bubble never bursts, as it appealingly tells Elle’s journey of independence and self-actualization with a cast that is, top to bottom, supremely talented and harmoniously compatible. With Keslake’s college-spirited choreography, Ketter’s high-end scenic design and seamless direction, as well as an adorable chihuahua (Bruiser) and bulldog (Rufus) to fawn over, attendees will find themselves energized and in approbation of the court while watching this scholarly and spectacular soiree.
For more information about “Legally Blonde” at the Candlelight Pavilion, please visit candlelightpavilion.com