Legally Blonde Guilty of Contempt of Audience; FIT Fuels Up Under a Texaco Canopy
There is a prima facie case that Legally Blonde The Musical, the latest Broadway tour to roll through the Music Hall at Fair Park this summer, is an equal opportunity offender. Nobody comes off looking good in this lead-feathered movie-to-musical adaptation: not lawyers, not law students, not sorority girls, not even Elle Woods, the blonde of the title. Looking worst of all are the people who created the thing: book writer Heather Hach, composer-lyricists Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and director-choreography Jerry Mitchell. They've committed a crime against American musical theater by taking a silly but entertaining chick-flick and cheapening it into a hacky parade of dirty jokes, crude stereotypes, cheerleader moves and godawful songs such as "Omigod You Guys," the score's loudest and most memorable (in a bad way) number. Abetting them are the actors, singers and dancers in the tour ensemble. They go about their work with such lazy energy and lack of enthusiasm, opening night went off like a walk-through. Even the scenery looked bored.
Played by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 non-singing film, Elle was a high-voltage heroine, a perky little trick in hot pink Juicy velour. On screen and stage, Elle starts out as a dizzy beauty who aspires only to marry up and shop her way to happiness. That changes when Elle's wealthy boyfriend, Warner, dumps her for a dark-haired heiress who is "Jackie" to Elle's "Marilyn." Determined to win back her man and prove she's not dumb and trashy, Elle follows Warner to Harvard Law School, where in a plot turn that happens only in movies and the musicals they spawn, she's admitted after earning an undergrad degree in fashion something-or-other.
The film's fish-out-of-bottled-water storyline sparkled because of Witherspoon, whose Elle was likable and smart. Forced to study hard to compete with Ivy Leaguers, movie-Elle learned she could be more than the only pretty face among bookish geeks. Under all that sleek yellow hair was a sharp intellect and natural talent for the law.
The movie also set out a strong argument for girl power (it would be too much to call it feminist sisterhood) as Elle turned competing females into allies, including her snooty brunette nemesis among the law students. She also worked her pixie magic on the dour class lesbian, on a blue-collar hair salon gal with low self-esteem and on the gym-babe defendant in a murder case. Big-screen Elle Woods was a positive influence on everyone around her, an avatar in haute couture. As she climbed to the top of the heap, it was admirable, not obnoxious, that she was able to do it in spiky Manolos.
The musical's Elle (played on tour by former Broadway cast understudy Becky Gulsvig) is minus the Witherspoon spunk. Now she's more of a pushy ditz, an overprocessed hairdo atop a squeaky singing voice and well-developed dancer calves. This Elle is less charmer than churl, steamrolling over everyone in her path. She uses people, takes shortcuts, flirts with men to get ahead, obsesses about clothes and stumbles tits-up into career success. She's the Elle from hell, devoid of all those great qualities, including a strong moral center, the movie version possessed.
And her outfits are nowhere near as nice either.
Legally Blonde The Musical (at some point colons and commas really should file a class action suit to protest their omission from current Broadway marquees) stretches all of the film's clever caricatures into insulting, one-dimensional cartoons. Straight men are sexist, amoral ass-grabbers. That sole lesbian is a lumbering homunculus. Gay men are limp-wristed, mincing queens.
Being gay is not just fodder for comedy throughout this show, but grounds for perjury in the big second act song-and-dance romp, which happens in the courtroom where law student Elle and her new pal Emmett (D.B. Bonds) trick a key witness into admitting he has a boyfriend, which means he couldn't have been the lady suspect's lover. Titled "There! Right There!" the song asks, "Is he gay...or European?" And it goes on with these fine lyrics:
That is the elephant in the room.
Well is it relevant to presume
that a hottie in that costume
GAY GAY GAY!
There are scurtinly-curtainly reasons to wonder why the writer-composers thought gay slurs were appropriate—or why they deemed lyrics this flabby fit for a Broadway stage. But they also work in a lot of references to masturbation and vomiting, so subtlety and poetry clearly aren't their strong suits.
Final verdict on this show? Res ipsa loquitur. To paraphrase the legal Latin: Omigod, you guys, it's lousy.
Little gems always emerge at the annual Festival of Independent Theatres, still going on through August 8 with multiple short plays by eight small companies in rotating rep at the Bath House Cultural Center. One of the best right now is the world premiere of Austin playwright Ellsworth Schave's one-act Under a Texaco Canopy, produced and performed by One-Thirty Productions.
In its opening moments, this play might be another of the folksy comedies One-Thirty does at its popular matinees for the senior set. And it is. But it isn't. There are some big, interesting ideas behind the play's message that in this life we're all connected by invisible threads. One twitch on one thread can change the lives of many others down the line.
The setting is a Texaco station, circa 1953, somewhere off a dusty rural road on a summer afternoon. Slim (Stan Graner) and his new fill-up man, Frank (Donny Avery), are filling a sleepy afternoon with small talk about dreams and dead relatives until a mysterious hitchhiker (Shane Beeson) wanders off the highway. They follow him to the nearby café, where he engages the men and a waitress (Morgan Justiss) in odd conversation, with questions so personal that Slim begins to think he might be an alien, as in Roswell flying saucer alien. When the man reveals who he really is and where he's from, some panic erupts, followed by an ending that's unexpected, wildly romantic and wholly satisfying.
A little bit Outer Limits, a little bit David Lynch, Under a Texaco Canopy is the work of a skilled writer who types in a less-is-more style. Schave's dialogue is terse, edited down to what's necessary and nothing more, which allows the audience to play a lively game of mental fill-in-the-blank. Schave also goes nonlinear in his storytelling, taking what begins as a trip to Mayberry into the realm of the metaphysical.
Directed and designed by Larry Randolph, Texaco's cast is one of FIT's strongest. Graner and Avery have an easy Andy-and-Barney rhythm. Justiss, so good earlier this year in The Nibroc Trilogy at the Bath House, makes the underwritten waitress character into an ethereal (and very funny) presence. Beeson manages to be both abrasive and attractive as the frustrated "alien" visiting from another time and place.
A play like this is a "think piece," a three-dimensional meditation on unseen dimensions of this world and others. Go see it.
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