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'Blonde' ambition Hard work, determination pays off for two Broadway hopefuls that star in the 'Legally Blonde' national tour

For most aspiring Broadway belters, a starring role in a show on the Great White Way comes only after a long, exhausting and often disheartening slog through New York City's hardscrabble theater scene.

So when Becky Gulsvig moved to New York City at the tender age of 17 to pursue her lifelong dream of performing on Broadway, she had no illusions about the price of success. After years of pounding the pavement and landing a handful of roles in national tours and a couple of supporting gigs on Broadway, Gulsvig found herself as the understudy for Laura Bell Bundy, the star of Broadway's "Legally Blonde."

When Bundy announced she would be leaving the show, it seemed Gulsvig's moment had finally arrived.

Enter MTV, stage left.

Instead of Gulsvig, the lead role of the pink-clad closet genius Elle Woods, made famous by Reese Witherspoon in the popular 2001 film, would be played by the winner of the MTV reality show "Legally Blonde: The Search for Elle Woods." On July 23, a 20-year-old named Bailey Hanks, with no New York acting experience whatsoever, made her Broadway debut -- "What, like it's hard?" -- as a headlining star. Most people in Gulsvig's position would have had, like, a total nuclear mental breakdown.

But Gulsvig, who will finally get her headlining crack at Elle Woods in the just-launched national tour of "Legally Blonde," which comes to Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, wasn't all that upset. Ever-polite and articulate, she called the MTV reality show gimmick -- clearly aimed at spreading the show's appeal and extending its run on Broadway -- "a mixed bag."

"Obviously, as someone who has waited on the streets for hours for auditions and gone to dance classes and really hit the pavement in New York City for years, it was hard to swallow that someone could get the biggest lead in a Broadway show just from being on a TV show," Gulsvig said. "But, at the same time, if I had been one of those girls at 18, it would have been just the most amazing experience ever."

In other words: "gulp."

It was a move the New York Times called "one step closer to the end of Broadway as we know it." But in actuality, the reality show had little effect on the show's bottom line. It will close next Sunday, the same day of the tour's final performance in Buffalo, after 30 previews and 595 performances.

And for Gulsvig, who has played Woods a number of times on Broadway as Bundy's understudy (YouTube will attest to her familiarity with the now-iconic role), taking on the character in the national tour is a dream in itself.

"This has definitely been the biggest part I've played," Gulsvig said. "She's in every single scene and only leaves the stage to change clothes very quickly. It's very satisfying to get to play it every night, especially having been with 'Legally Blonde' for almost two years now, just really working my way through company and trying really hard to get there."

The show, for the three of you who missed the 2001 film, follows Woods on an unlikely journey from the safe and uncomplicated world of Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard University in pursuit of her stuffy caricature of an ex-boyfriend. Along the way, though, Woods' superior intelligence makes itself known, and in the end she learns a tidy and thoroughly glitzy lesson about the eminence of girl power and the deception of appearances. There are also a lot of cute costumes.

Story-wise, the show is a straight adaptation of the film, with music by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe, who also penned the music for the cult hit "Bat Boy," which came to Studio Arena Theatre a year ago.

The show will also feature Orchard Park native Adam Zelasko, a 2005 graduate of the University at Buffalo's theater program who has since appeared on a non-Equity tour of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and the 2007-08 Chicago-based production of the Off-Broadway hit "Altar Boyz."

Zelasko, who has appeared locally in shows at MusicalFare Theatre ("The Girl in the Frame," "The Spitfire Grill") and Artpark ("A Chorus Line"), also points to this tour as a major career success and a welcome chance to show his friends and family what he's been working for since he moved to New York City three years ago. He plays two minor characters, Woods' fellow Harvard student Padamadan and an ambiguously flamboyant pool boy named Nikos.

"I have been going to shows at Shea's since I was like 6 years old," Zelasko said. He recalled being captivated by Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" and the classic "Singin' in the Rain." After taking in those grandiose spectacles, he knew, even as a 6-year-old, that he was destined for the stage.

"I remember looking up there, and you have that thing where you're like, 'I could totally do that. Maybe I could do it even a little bit better.' That's kind of where the love, for me, started," Zelasko said. The same went for his desire to be in "Legally Blonde," a show for which he auditioned more times than he cares to remember.

Zelasko identifies with the hard work required to land a role on Broadway and says he was never deterred from following that dream, even when the going got rough in New York.

"As soon as I decided, when I was a sophomore in high school, I never had any doubts about it," Zelasko said. "My parents were always very supportive, but they also said, 'Oh, don't you want a back-up career, don't you want to do this, don't you want to do that?' I said no. This is what I have to do to succeed in my career and this is what I'm going to do."

And so, like Gulsvig, who baby-sat and waited tables and went out for countless auditions in her pursuit of a Broadway career, Zelasko worked as a Starbucks barista and in a gym and salon in Manhattan but never once doubted that his chance in the spotlight would come.

And Tuesday, when the lights go up on "Legally Blonde" at Shea's, at least two classic Broadway success stories will hit the stage. Even reality TV couldn't stop that.

"Everyone's path is different," said Gulsvig. "Some people have to go the hard way and the long way, and some people can get it through a reality show now. It's a mix. It's great for them and it's great for the show. Theater is starting to morph a little bit, but it's not necessarily a bad thing."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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THEATER PREVIEW

"Legally Blonde: The Musical" opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St., and runs through next Sunday.

Tickets are $27.50 to $62.50.

More information is available at 847-1410 or at www.sheas.org.

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