Smile Politely

CUTC’s Legally Blonde played to sold-out crowds last week

Photo of a large cast of mostly teen actors on stage all smiling at the camera.
Cast of Legally Blonde; Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company on Facebook

It’s Tony awards week as we approach the 77th annual Tony Awards this Sunday. Get those grills heated and ready to celebrate Father’s Day the old-fashioned way with some sparkling bubbly as we watch Ariana DeBose host for the third year in a row. In other Broadway news, our own Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company’s (CUTC) production of Legally Blonde: The Musical opened last Thursday, June 6th to a full weekend of sold-out shows. Families and friends enjoyed the show at Parkland College’s Harold and Jean Miner Theatre. With eight weeks of rehearsal and preparation, did CUTC pull off doing justice to this 2007 Tony-nominated musical? For the most part, yes.

It’s difficult to overstate the cultural impact the original film, and subsequent musical, have had since the film’s release in 2001. Based on the novel by Amber Brown, whose own experience of being a fashion-obsessed blonde attending Stanford Law School serves as the basis for Elle Woods’ journey, the film, directed by (then) first-time director Robert Luketic took in over $141 million worldwide. Reese Witherspoon, who played the iconic role in the 2001 film, noted back in 2017 that she still gets notes from women fans of the film who claim they applied to law school because of Legally Blonde. One iconic character, a lot of rom com, and a ton of box office cash is how, my friends, you get your movie made into a Tony-nominated musical.

Photo of two actresses on stage; one wears a pink shirt and grey sweatpants with pink slippers and the other stands in a black t-shirt and jeans.
Cast of Legally Blonde; CUTC on Facebook

The story follows Elle Woods, a UCLA sorority woman who tries to get into Harvard Law school in an effort to win back her boyfriend, who recently broke up with her. Woods earns a 175 on her LSAT and Harvard admits her into law school. Sounds simple, but it’s a romantic comedy so comedy, and song, carry the story to its logical conclusion. 

With a large cast of high schoolers, keeping things from getting out of control was bound to be a challenge. CUTC succeeded in channeling all that pent-up energy which was on full display opening night. For a musical as heavy on the choreography as this one, a high level of physical activity was required. The youthfulness of the cast definitely contributed to some solid dance performances.

If I had one complaint, it would be with being able to hear the singing. The lines I was able to hear were quite lovely. However, they were few and far between. From where I sat near front and center, the orchestra played a bit too aggressively and drowned out the voices of these young singers. It even affected the leads wearing microphones. There were a few minor but noticeable technical glitches, but they didn’t ruin the audience’s experience. Producer Erin Tarr even said that one of the biggest challenges in producing this show were the technical aspects. In the first act alone, there were seven wardrobe changes on stage not to mention juggling the props and set pieces. “Those are the things that as a producer,” Tarr said, “ you hope all comes together. I hope it all works out.”

Image of a cast of teen actors in various poses on a stage with bright pink lights behind them.
Cast of Legally Blonde; CUTC on Facebook

The musical condenses Elle’s studying for the LSAT and getting accepted into Harvard into a single song with two very different styles of music. The lengthy story song, “What you want,” starts out with Jamaican hip-hop overtones and a frat boy twerking to spring break shenanigans. The scene then shifts to the Harvard law school admissions office where three administrators debate whether to admit Elle. The musical number continues when Elle shows up with her friends from Delta Nu sorority. The second half of the song is an off-the-wall “personal essay” that at first fails to sway the last holdout on Harvard’s staff from accepting her into the school. In nearly every great rom com, the romantic elements dominate. Some people might see love and logic as opposites. But in the end, the theme of love wins out. The story then shifts into the predatory, cold, and logical nature of lawyers in the first classroom scene at Harvard. Professor Callahan’s introductory song “Blood in the Water” is sung by a familiar face, Corban Eagles (featured last year at the Station Theatre), who pulls off this role quite well. 

Adsen Tarr, who plays Elle Woods, captures the dual nature of Elle’s character. Tarr captures both the serious and whimsical aspects simultaneously. Elle may be a stereotypical sorority girl through most of the first act, but there’s a lawyer underneath that fashion-obsessed veneer.

The second act tackles the legal aspect of the play more head-on. The lowest point for Elle takes place right before the song “Legally Blonde.” Something traumatic happens and while what does occur may be a story cliché now, back in 2007 these very real moments weren’t talked about. In a lot of ways, they still aren’t. The song is beautifully sad and the context plays a huge role in the emotional effect of Elle’s distressing moment. It’s one thing to go from a 10 to an 8 on a happiness scale, but she goes from 10 to 1 and you feel that drop in your gut as an audience member.

Overall, CUTC pulled off quite the challenge with such a huge cast and so many moving parts. But they’ve been at it since 1991 and the vital role they play in our theatre community cannot be understated. 

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