Christian Borle, Laura Bell Bundy, and Richard H. Blake
in Legally Blonde
(© Paul Kolnik)
Christian Borle, Laura Bell Bundy, and Richard H. Blake
in Legally Blonde
(© Paul Kolnik)
Once upon a time, the Broadway musical was considered a woman's province, with Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gertrude Lawrence, Carol Channing, and Angela Lansbury among the theater's brightest marquee names. But this is 2007, and things have changed somewhat. It's now beginning to look as if the Broadway musical is what some might call "girl-power territory," and the time-honored tuner tradition is becoming a series of morale-building chapters in "The Young Girl's Guide to Growing."

Following in the hit footsteps of Hairspray and Wicked comes Legally Blonde, a boisterous adaptation of the smart and saucy Reese Witherspoon chick-flick. The show, which marks the directing debut of veteran choreographer Jerry Mitchell, is as meticulously groomed as its level-headed-despite-being-blonde protagonist, Elle Woods, played just about perfectly by Laura Bell Bundy (who starred in both Hairspray and Wicked).

In a world where musicals are being shaped for the sort of adolescents and pre-adolescents who go around saying things like "Omigod, you guys," it's no accident that the opening number in the bubbly but not bubble-brained Nell Benjamin-Laurence O'Keefe score is called "Omigod You Guys." Even if some of the lyrics are unintelligible as sung here, the canny kick-off immediately shouts out to the Tracy Turnblad-Elphaba/Glinda-Elle Woods wannabes in the audience, "This show's for you!" The cheer when the number ends says, "We hear ya!"

This tune-heavy adaptation then sticks closely enough to the film's screenplay -- which was wrought from Amanda Brown's novel -- that young and old fans alike will be delighted, as well as those attendees who missed the film. The intuitively-bright Elle is dumped by Harvard Law School-bound beau Warner Huntington III (Richard H. Blake) during their senior year at UCLA, but she longingly follows the cad to the Massachusetts campus.

Once there, she discovers that he's courting glass-ceiling threat Vivienne Kensington (Kate Shindle). So, with the help of nice teaching assistant Emmett Forrest (Christian Borle) and beauty salon booster Paulette (Orfeh), she gets herself on the trial team that cutthroat law professor Callahan (Michael Rupert) puts together and sets out to prove the innocence of fitness guru-accused husband slayer Brooke Wyndham (Nikki Snelson).

Does Elle, with chihuahua Bruiser (Chico) tagging along, prevail? Does librettist Heather Hach retain some of the movie's funniest exchanges, such as when opportunist Warner says to Elle, "You got into Harvard?" only to have Elle reply, "What? Like, it's hard?" What do you think? Has Hach deepened Elle's characterization? That's a dicier question.

It's frequently difficult to enhance characterizations when the dialogue is constantly being stripped away in favor of giddy song and dance; and there's certainly plenty of that amid David Rockwell's multitudinous California-bright and Harvard-somber sets and Gregg Barnes' costumes, which tend toward many shades of pink when the pink-struck Elle is around.

Indeed, Legally Blonde may be a case of too many songs and dances. Mitchell's obvious aim, which is to keep things moving quickly, results in the kind of perpetual motion machine that eventually turns the musical into a blur of songs. While his dances are unfailingly exuberant, especially the skip-rope "Whipped Into Shape" routine that opens Act II, they are too Toni Basil-Michael Peters video-based to be distinguished.

As for the score, the second act ditty "There! Right There!" -- which asks the musical question "Gay or European?" -- is lots of fun. So is the lyric "Why bother with false modesty? Harvard's the perfect place for me." Otherwise, lively as the songs are in Christopher Jahnke's arrangements, few impress as inviting a second listen.

In addition to Bundy, who looks so much like her film predecessor that spectators sitting farther back than the 10th row may think they're actually seeing Witherspoon, the rest of the accomplished cast does what they're asked to do with unflagging energy. Especially fine are the likable Borle, the belting Orfeh, the unctuous Blake, the haughty Shindle, and Leslie Kritzer as hip-hitching sorority sister Serena, one-third of Elle's very own Greek chorus.

Omigod, you guys. For better or worse, Legally Blonde is a hit!