CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre unveiled an energetic and tuneful production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” last weekend, and it continues for three more performances through Saturday. Some impressions of the show:
Pictured above: Sarah Rosenthal as Elle and William MacDonald as Warner in ‘Legally Blonde.’ Photo: CenterStage Clovis Community Theatre
It’s pretty daring for Clovis. I realize that might be weird to say in today’s California. Is Clovis really that conservative? But we’re talking about a company that still avoids holding performances on Sundays because, well, I don’t know why — maybe God is busy watching matinees at Roger Rocka’s, StageWorks, the 2nd Space, Selma Arts Center, Fresno State, Fresno City, in other words, everywhere else. Anyway, I’ve always known CenterStage to play it scrupulously safe with its titles, relying on a heavy rotation of Disney favorites and oldie-but-goodie Broadway classics. With “Legally Blonde,” it feels like the company is stepping out a little on the wild side. Which I consider a good thing. Which brings us to:
They did not cut the song “Gay or European?” in the second act. Not that I really thought director Scott Hancock would — even Children’s Musical Theaterworks included the song (which happens to be the funniest in the show) in its recent production — but, CMT performs in Fresno, and CenterStage is in Clovis, and, well … see paragraph above.
Sarah Rosenthal plays Elle Woods. She’s the UCLA sorority gal who gets dumped by her boyfriend and decides to follow him to Harvard Law, has a very nice voice and stage demeanor. She brings a slightly more grounded and even sober side to Elle than I’ve seen in some other productions, which adds nicely to the empowerment angle. She makes an endearing lead for this show. In terms of her dialogue, there are times that she rushes her delivery, making it hard to understand some key lines, but her vocals really soar.
Dakota Simpson plays Emmett. He’s the good-natured teaching assistant who takes Elle under his wing. He has very good comic timing and does a great Elmer Fudd impression. At the Saturday matinee performance I attended, he had some vocal issues matching pitch. But his acting is strong.
Isaiah Bankson has the UPS “walk” down as Kyle, the delivery guy. He’s also quite funny and charismatic. Say what you want about “Legally Blonde” being sexist — it’s equal-opportunity sexist, which removes a lot of the sting.
Four other performances stand out. Kay Wilkins is terrific as Paulette, the beauty shop owner who befriends Elle, with wonderful vocals and a feisty stage presence. William MacDonald is impressive as Warner Huntington III, the callous boyfriend. Kelsey Coyne has some great moments as Brooke Wyndham, the “exercise queen” whose trial for murder propels the second act. And Darren Tharp, whose booming voice could probably be heard across the street at the library, makes a deliciously malignant Callahan, the evil law professor.
The direction is often crisp, but a few scenes falter. One in particular is the important moment when Warner and his heretofore obnoxious girlfriend, Vivienne (Madelyn Broach, in nice voice) witness nasty behavior by Callahan. The professor is a slimy guy with a lot of faults, but I don’t think having absolutely no peripheral vision is one of them. Yet other scenes, such as those set in the classroom, are very well done.
Technical credits are pretty good. Caleb Wilson’s scenic design uses some clever elements but can feel a little skimpy. Marc Petros’ lighting design is vibrant but has a tendency to get a little too technicolor for my taste. Erin Roberts’ choreography shows promise, though such numbers as the Irish remix near the end felt underprepared.
There are dogs! You’d have to be living under Doghouse Grill not to know that Fresno State’s live mascot, Victor E. Bulldog, has a cameo role in the show. He was the only actor to get applause when he made his entrance. (Ah, the hazards of working with kids and dogs.) A nice chihuahua named Pennie plays Bruiser, Elle’s beloved companion.
The ensemble has great energy. The Greek Chorus, led by Fatima Avila, Gina Peckfelder and Lexie Castellanos, gets into the spirit, giving such songs as “What You Want” sparkle and wit.
I’m sorry about my preconceived notions. But I wanted so much more with “So Much Better,” the first-act finale that Elle sings after learning she received a coveted internship and that is traditionally staged as a big production number. Rosenthal puts her Broadway belt to good use, but I wanted that Greek Chorus on stage with her, whether it’s spelling out Elle’s name with their sweatshirts or something equally compelling.
Let’s get serious and talk sound. CenterStage has a long and storied tradition of using a full orchestra, which is admirable and exciting. I always look forward to it. But — how can I say this as gently as I can? — I’d rather have a musical track (gasp) if it meant I could hear all the lyrics. The orchestra, under conductor Pete Van Der Paardt, sounded great, but the musicians often overpowered the singers. Much of the time, I simply couldn’t understand the words to the songs. The usual suspects (keyboards, percussion and brass) were too dominant. Even when soloists with great volume (such as Tharp and Wilkins) weren’t belting, they could be hard to understand. (Wilkins’ character gives a “where are they now” recap of the major players at the end of the show, which is about as important as you can get, and most of the details were entirely lost.) A number of great laugh lines in this show never landed at the performance I attended because the clever lyrics were not heard by the audience. The solution is figuring out a sound design that works with weaker voices as well as stronger ones — and figuring out a way to balance the orchestra’s volume. This should be the highest priority. If it isn’t possible — and I realize that sound design can be one of the hardest things to get right in a production — then the company should reconsider using live music.
I know I sound a little grumpy. And I don’t mean to leave that as a final impression. I admire all the hard work that went into this production and the uplifting experience it provides for the cast, crew and audience. I like the wit and heart of “Legally Blonde,” and I have especially always loved the music. (That’s the case even though I haven’t been able to get the musical phrase “One-seventy-five,” which is Elle’s final LSAT score, out of my head for the past six days.) I also admire Hancock’s decision to give us what I am pretty sure must be CenterStage’s first same-sex kiss. It’s done in great style by Angel Medina and Brandon Ian Montelongo. (ZaZa, currently breaking barriers across town in “La Cage Aux Folles,” would be so proud.) You see, Clovis, a man can be gay and European. Welcome to 2019.