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Off Broadway review of Legally BlondeTHREE CHEERS FOR THE PROS
 
Theatre Reviews
by Harvey Perr
published April 30, 2007
 
now playing on Broadway at the Palace
 
now playing Off Broadway at the Beckett on Theatre Row
through May 12
 
now playing in the Oak Room at the Algonquin
through May 12
 
There  are times in the theater when one is grateful to come across professionalism, plain and simple, when you can just sit back and relax because the people in charge know exactly what they are doing and do it right. Sometimes it yields something akin to art, as in the case of the Actors Company Theatre production of Edward Bond’s fascinating “The Sea,” and sometimes it yields the pleasures of old-fashioned crowd-pleasing entertainment, as in the case of the Broadway production of the feather-weight “Legally Blonde (The Musical).” 
 
Let’s start with the latter. Based on the popular film that asked us to believe than an airhead from Malibu can become a student at Harvard Law and teach all those East Coast intellectuals a thing or two about law and morality, the musical, like the film, is totally unconcerned about the dubiousness of its hidden agenda. Elle Woods, pretty in pink and armed with a Greek Chorus of chums in the other available pastel colors, a good deal more blonde than what could strictly be called natural let alone legal, chases after her boyfriend, who has jilted her, all the way from cotton-candied Southern California to umber-toned Cambridge – as quickly as the sets can change which, in this instance, is faster than Elle can bat her eyelashes – and proceeds to rip the ivy from its hallowed walls, seduce everyone she meets, win a murder case, lose the boyfriend she’s been running after, find a man worthier of her innumerable talents and charms, and who, in the person of one Laura Bell Bundy, having discovered a hundred and one ways to redefine vivacity, wins the kind of standing ovation that makes stars of ingenues. Did I adore Ms. Bundy? Who, but the surliest among us, wouldn’t?
 
Off Broadway review of Legally BlondeAnd that, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg. She gets the liveliest kind of support from a very attractive group of  highly talented performers, most notably Michael Rupert as her lecherous law professor, Christian Borle as the young man who is worthy of her, Richard H. Blake as the young man who isn’t, Nikki Snelson as the would-be murderess she defends, and, perhaps best of all, the irresistible Orfeh as a love-lorn beauty shop proprietress with an ache in her heart and an undeniable twinkle in both of her lovely eyes, not to mention a voice that gives musical theater a good name.
 
The book by Heather Hach is not going to win the Pulitzer Prize, I feel bound by critical obligation to say, but, fluff though it might be, it does move things along, except for some slow patches in the second act, with good humor. There is a breezy sense of self-mockery about the book that keeps it (and us) from ever taking anything too seriously. In a show of this kind, that is no small virtue. The score by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin is not going to give Stephen Sondheim sleepless nights, either; but the music is tuneful and the lyrics, while hardly the embodiment of wit and sophistication, manage to be funny, intelligent and even, at times, quite clever, especially the delightful “Blood in the Water,” which  gives the legal profession a gentle kidding and which Mr. Rupert seems to have such a good time singing. David Rockwell’s sets, Gregg Barnes’ costumes, and the lighting design by Ken Posner and Paul Miller, are appropriately pretty, which is to say that, under the circumstances, they are pretty nearly perfect.
 
But the one person who deserves the lion’s share of the credit is choreographer Jerry Mitchell who may be making his directorial debut with this show but who seems to know every trick in the book, and, better yet, know which tricks to use and which ones to reject. He knows more about fluidity and pace than more seasoned directors have demonstrated in recent years, and, even though there is virtually nothing happening on the stage of the Palace Theatre that you haven’t seen before, it is nice to see the old stuff done so smartly. You don’t have to like “Legally Blonde” – to tell the truth, I’m not sure I really liked it all that much – to admire the skill with which it’s been put together.   
 
Off Broadway review of The SeaIt is a beautiful and wondrous thing to see how artfully the creative crew of “The Sea” have put together their play on a much more limited budget with more limited resources. While it amounts to the same thing – skilled professionals working at the top of their form – it reflects the difference between simply putting on a show and actually developing a labor of love. In this instance, they have started with the play, a strange and intriguing work, which, with the aid of some gorgeous writing, seems to want to take us back into some bygone time when the English theater was turning out pleasant little class comedies in which most of the characters were a bit what one once called “twee,” and then introduce into it a kind of disturbance, a sense of madness and mayhem that was perhaps always lurking in the corners, but that was finally brought alive and flailing to the English theater of the 1960s and 1970s, when this play was written – by a man with a certain notoriety for the savage –  providing us with a curious hybrid of past and present, of the ordinary and the disorienting. It is an Edward Bond play this reviewer was unfamiliar with and it probably would have provided satisfaction enough just to be able to discover it.
 
The director, Scott Alan Evans, whose previous work I unfortunately am not acquainted with, but who, as one of the company’s artistic directors, has guided the company through some sixty productions, brings to the play not only skill but also great care and imagination. From the very first moment – an actress working an antique wind machine – we enter the play’s world with the most extraordinary sense of the theatrical, a theatricality that gives a heartbeat and pulse to the very spirit of the play. Even when I wasn’t sure what Bond was saying, I was confident that Mr. Evans was. He is helped immeasurably by the inventive contribution of his set designer, Narelle Sissons, who knows how to transform a series of movable cabinets of different sizes and shapes into the exteriors and interiors of a small seaside town. And David Toser’s period costumes do not look as if they came directly from a costume shop, as they usually do in most productions of period plays, but as if the characters had worn them all their lives.
 
It is Mr. Evans’ actors who deserve most of the credit for bringing to life so vividly, and with so much humanity, the twists and turns of the characters’ behavioral tics; the ensemble is superb, but the standouts are Greg McFadden as a draper with a mad streak, Delphi Harrington as an aristocratic matron, Nora Chester as her beleaguered maid, Jamie Bennett as a doltish local, Gregory Salata as an ancient who understands the ways of the sea, Ruth Eglsaer as a young woman who has lost her love to the sea, and Allen E. Read as the young man who loves her. There is a delicious scene which proves that it takes good actors to play bad actors. And there is a church sequence that is as wickedly amusing as the rest of the play is mordantly mournful. “The Sea” is as good as theater gets. And it is done with such simplicity and thoughtfulness that one wonders why all theater doesn’t accomplish as much.
 
Cabaret review of Karen Akers - Simply StyneKaren Akers, who is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Singers Forum at their Spring Gala on May 7, is another thoroughgoing professional, currently holding court at the Oak Room of the Hotel Algonquin. Ms. Akers is one of the grand dames of cabaret, but, in her tribute to Jule Styne, she relies a bit too much on her professional skills. Styne proves to be a less than ideal fit for her particular talents. The warmth and humor – both so necessary to fully explore what it is that Styne brings to a song – are injected a little forcibly and, as a result, it is tension rather than relaxation that Ms. Akers exudes. Almost every song reminds you of another singer who has attacked the same material and, in most of them, it is the other singer who comes out ahead. When she turns her attention to the dizzyingly funny “If,” it is Stritch we want to hear. When, in “Just in Time,” she channels Judy Holliday, it is Ms. Holliday we want to hear. Still, every so often, as in “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” she makes a unique connection to a song and it becomes her very own, and for a magical moment, we are reminded of what makes Ms. Akers, at her best, so special.    
 
 
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