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It's hard not to like glitz done well

The Broadway version of "Legally Blonde," which opened Tuesday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, is many things to many people.

Some bemoan its simplistic message, its overt tendency toward the melodramatic or its casual reinforcement of a contrived feminine ideal. Others complain about its formulaic songwriting. And while they might have a point, those people are boring.

To everyone who counts, the show is a breathless affirmation of the triumph of girlishness, a thoroughly and consciously crowd-pleasing collection of Adderall-fueled Malibu morality tales. It succeeds in the degree to which it assaults us with endorphin-producing melodies and nuclear-powered dance numbers that intend to leave no soul unentertained. Which is to say that it succeeds brilliantly.

If ever a glitzy Hollywood film begged for translation into the language of musical theater, it was the 2001 girl-power extravaganza "Legally Blonde," which upon its release entranced legions of tweenage acolytes with the message that ditziness, like nerdiness, is only skin deep.

The show follows the sordid tale of Elle Woods (Becky Gulsvig), a sorority sister from Southern California whose boyfriend Warner (Jeff McLean) has the gall to dump her before flying off to Harvard Law School. Not to be tossed aside like the last issue of Vogue, Elle studies like mad and miraculously enters the hallowed halls of Harvard, where she learns to kick some serious legal butt and discovers that her love of the uber-feminine is a virtue to behold, even a weapon to wield.

The music, by Nell Benjamin and "Bat Boy: The Musical" composer Laurence O'Keefe, shines brightest in the show's opening number, "Omigod You Guys," which becomes a leitmotif for later moments that require an amped-up grandiosity. The first act closer "So Much Better," and scattered homages to past Broadway greats like "Dead in the Water" also stand out. The lyrics, also co-written by O'Keefe and Benjamin, are as smart and sassy as the show's protagonist, and they bolster some of the musical's quirkier assets, notably the totally out-of-left-field "Ireland," sung beautifully by Joy Johnson as Elle's sage hairdresser Paulette.
The musical's book, when briefly on display between songs, is smartly written and includes several savvy updates from the original film, along with lots of hilarious asides. Those who have watched the MTV broadcast of the Broadway show (which closes Sunday) will notice some changes, most notably in the sets, which have been modestly scaled back to allow for travel. A second-act duet has also been retooled, but the all-important sense of high-octane euphoria remains.
Gulsvig, a longtime understudy of Elle on Broadway, fits seamlessly into those glittery shoes. Her performance is understated but strong, her confidence engrossing. Other standouts are Ken Land as skeevy Harvard Law Professor Callahan, D.B. Bonds as Elle's new love interest Emmett and the voice, if not the acting, of McLean as the haughty Warner. Local boy-made-good Adam Zelasko turns in a hilarious performance as the pool boy Nikos in the rather un-PC number "There! Right There!"

The show's not-so-deep message -- don't judge a book by its cover, dream big, to thine own self be true and so forth -- is all well and good. But where "Legally Blonde" really succeeds is in the overwhelming force of its execution. It's a glitzy show that knows what it's good at, and that's all the reason necessary to check it out.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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>Theater Review

"Legally Blonde: The Musical"

Review: Three stars (out of four)

Presented through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. For more information, call 847-1410 or visit www.sheas.org.

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