Wednesday, April 24, 2019

TITG’s Legally Blonde – So Silly, Yet So Smart

Picture shows Logan Switzer, Kieran Thomas, Rachel Doyel,
Mickey, and Max Powell. Photo by A Life Condensed Photography.

By Tina Arth

When possible, I like to approach live theatrical performances with an open mind, unfettered by specific expectations and prepared to revel in the moment for what it has to offer, rather than for what it may lack. Never having been exposed to Legally Blonde in either its 2001 book and movie formats nor the 2007 musical version, I was a perfectly primed blank slate for Theatre in the Grove’s current production of Legally Blonde, The Musical – and I found the entire production to be a thoroughly charming exercise in the power and promise of community theater. Director and Choreographer Luis Ventura, teamed with Vocal Director Michelle Bahr and the rest of the production staff, about 30 cast members, the talented musicians in the orchestra pit, and two scene-stealing dogs deliver 2+ hours of high-energy silliness anchored by several excursions into serious themes including a plot-shifting “me-too” moment.

The story, in a clamshell: UCLA fashion design student Elle Woods (Malibu Barbie with backbone, if that helps to create the image) learns that her college sweetheart, the well-connected cad Warner Huntington III, is dumping her when he goes off to Harvard Law – he has presidential aspirations, and wants a wife who is “more Jackie, less Marilyn.” Determined to prove that she’s not just an empty-headed blonde, Elle miraculously manages to ace her LSATs, and to talk/sing/dance her way into Harvard Law by dazzling the admissions committee with an elaborate (if somewhat unlikely) musical number. Elle leaves her Delta Nu sorority sisters behind (sort of), packs up Bruiser (her pink-clad Chihuahua), and heads off to join the first-year law class with Warner. Warner has by now reconnected with Vivienne, an old pal (and serious brunette) who fits his “Jackie” image to a T and who has no interest in sharing Warner with a bubbly blonde.  Determined to recapture Warner’s heart, Elle goes off to a beauty shop to transform herself into a brunette, but the beautician, Paulette, talks her out of it. Elle and Paulette bond over their mutual heartache and love of dogs, and with Paulette’s advice, the support of teaching assistant Emmett Forrest, and an imaginary Greek chorus (Elle’s Delta Nu sisters) she not only aces law school, but saves the day with her brilliant defense of fitness queen Brooke Wyndham.  In the end, instead of changing herself into someone she’s not, Elle stays true to herself and in the process makes the world a lot brighter.

When I saw it on Easter Sunday, the show was by no means perfect – there were some unfortunate costume choices, a few muffed lines, and the occasional stumble during one jump-rope driven dance number – but none of this in any way diminished the audience’s enthusiasm for the production. 17-year-old Rachel Doyel is impossibly cute, perky, and naive as the irrepressible Elle Woods, yet she manages to capture the character’s intelligence and courage – her rendition of “So Much Better” is a show-stopping summation of the character’s growth and Rachel’s vocal chops. As TA Emmett Forrest, Max Powell creates a slightly nerdy alternate love interest from his first appearance, and the audience immediately roots for him to knock the shallow Warner (William Dober) out of his place in Elle’s heart.

I was blown away by Ami Erickson as the quirky, working class hairdresser Paulette. Her wise, downtrodden, slightly hangdog affect disguises a fundamentally optimistic core, she totally sells her big number (“Ireland”), and her comic timing and subtle accent make every line a winner. While he fills many roles, it is as UPS delivery guy Kyle B. O’Boyle that Nick Serrone really sparkles (and rocks his slightly-shorter than-standard issue UPS shorts).

A few other performances particularly stand out – don’t miss the uninhibitedly campy Zachary Centers’ white, white legs; his dance number with Kieran Thomas is downright hilarious. Brittany Bickel’s frenetic exercise queen Brooke Wyndham maintains an unbelievable energy level - I kept watching for signs of exhaustion but saw none. I loved the entire Delta Nu ensemble, especially Emma Heesacker, whose cheerleader “Serena” seemed to imbue the whole cast with her bouncy enthusiasm. Of course, the entire cast disappears whenever there’s a dog on stage, and Legally Blonde gives us two – audience favorite Parker Pup as the stately and obedient Rufus, and the exceptionally tolerant Mickey as tiny Bruiser, the Chihuahua with the killer costumes.

James Grimes’ set design is minimalist, in most cases barely suggesting locale (except for the flashy trailer exterior, which is essential to the development of Paulette’s back story). By using rotating sets, virtually no time is lost to scene changes, and this helps to keep the show’s length to around two hours. A quick look at the program makes it obvious that Legally Blonde is the product of a huge community of actors, musicians, techies, stage hands, directors and assorted helping hands, and TITG is lucky to have the kind of broad-based support needed to bring this much fun theater to local audiences.

Legally Blonde The Musical is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through May 5, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

One Enchanted Evening

By Tina Arth

I am hopelessly enamored of much of the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein – the stage musicals, the movies derived from some of their biggest hits, the songs, the themes – and thus entered the opening night performance of Broadway Rose’s A Grand Night for Singing shamelessly biased toward the production. Miraculously, Director Sharon Maroney and her team still managed to exceed my lofty expectations. The review wastes no time on exposition, makes no effort to provide show-specific sets, costumes, or context – and is thus able to pack 36 numbers (representing 39 songs, courtesy of a few medleys) from eleven Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. In just over two hours, we were treated to five wonderful vocalists, accompanied by Music Director Jeffrey Childs’ marvelous musicians, presenting a variety of songs from Allegro, Cinderella, Carousel, Flower Drum Song, The King and I, Me and Juliet, Oklahoma, Pipe Dream, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and State Fair – and I loved every minute. Special thanks to Dan Murphy for his curtain speech, where he pointed out to the audience that it is not a sing-along, and thus that the audience should consider it a grand night for listening – as it most certainly was.

The selection of shows and songs is somewhat counterintuitive – instead of a compendium of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest hits, performed as they might have been in the original shows, the review is seasoned with works from several lesser-known musicals. Even on the most familiar standards, gender switches help to frame iconic songs in an intriguing and original context that allows for a new appreciation. “Honey Bun” – a song designed for a woman pretending to be a man, sung by a man? Revolutionary!  The first verse of “Kansas City” sung by a woman? Will Parker would be shocked! “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” takes on a whole new slant when a guy in a tux replaces Mother Superior. Part of the fun for me was comparing the evening’s performances with the songs as I remember them within their full shows – don’t miss “Shall We Dance” and “This Nearly Was Mine” removed from their ethnic overtones, yet still evocative of the authors’ courageous willingness to tackle racial issues in their stories.

The vocal work is exquisite – lush harmonies, powerful solos, witty and original arrangements all conspire to keep the audience fully engaged. Caitlin Brooke’s just short of over-the-top take on “I Cain’t Say No” is beyond wonderful, and the “Stepsisters’ Lament” duet with Kelly Sina is a great showcase for both actors’ considerable comedic chops.  However, the women’s’ comic numbers get some serious competition from Joe Theissen and Joey Côté, whose “Don’t Marry Me” is staged and sung flawlessly. The light-hearted creativity of the marching band at the end of “Kansas City” is a perfect finale to one of the evening’s best numbers, but the show just keeps growing as Deborah Mae Hill follows with her powerful yet plaintive take on “A Hundred Million Miracles.” When the company sings together, there are lots of spine-tingling crescendos that make you look for the rest of the choir – there’s just no way five vocalists should be able to produce a sound that rich.  Half-way through “Some Enchanted Evening” I decided that life would not be complete until I saw Joe Theissen play Emile de Becque, a decision confirmed near the end of Act II with his stirring delivery of “This Nearly Was Mine.”
As much as I love A Grand Night for Singing, I must warn that it is best suited to people who are already in love with musical theater, and who have at least passing familiarity with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s massive oeuvre. Luckily, Broadway Rose has no shortage of fans in this demographic; expect lots of full houses throughout the run, with some shows already sold out.  
A Grand Night for Singing is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, April 28th.