DURHAM — Broadway producers now turn regularly to popular films for new musicals, counting on the movies' fans for guaranteed audiences. The best can become major hits ("Hairspray," "The Producers") but most use up that guarantee in a year or so ("The Wedding Singer," "Xanadu"), because the shows can't stand on their own.
"Legally Blonde" had its 18 months on Broadway ending late last year, and is now on a 59-city tour, seeking enough fans across the country to recoup its investment. Based on the enthusiastic response for Tuesday's opening at the Durham Performing Arts Center, its producers can rest easy, despite the show's limitations.
The movie "Legally Blonde" was a hit because of Reese Witherspoon's charisma as Elle, the perky sorority girl who applied to Harvard law school to follow her boyfriend there. The tightly paced, 90-minute film is charming in spite of its many unrealistic situations, including Elle's transformation into an ace lawyer.
"Legally Blonde" has no inherent musical elements in its storyline, challenging show creators to come up with premises for songs and dancing. The musical adds another hour (including intermission) without adding anything substantial to characters or plot. The songs by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin are serviceable at best; time-wasters at worst.
Book writer Heather Hach has cleverly telescoped a number of characters and scenes, while retaining all the film's signature situations. Despite director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell's breathless production numbers and zippy pacing, most of the show's best moments are non-musical ones, replicating favorites from the movie. It's also telling that the biggest reactions are for the dogs (Chihuahua Bruiser and bulldog Rufus) and cruder versions of the movie's sexual innuendos from the hunky UPS deliveryman.
Much of the show's problems are smoothed over by the talented, energetic cast. It's not a backhanded compliment to say that Becky Gulsvig's Elle looks and sounds like Witherspoon's -- it's what makes the show work. She endearingly embodies the perfect balance of Elle's air-headedness and smarts, with a strong, attractive voice to boot. Matching her is D.B. Bond's quietly winning Emmett, the law school grad who finds himself in love with Elle. Their captivating scenes and duets make the rest of the show palatable.
The physical production also is a plus, with David Rockwell's amusingly exaggerated dorm rooms and courtrooms making great backdrops for Gregg Barnes' appropriately over-the-top costumes, especially all the variations in pink for Elle. The sound system, however, turns everything that is not a solo into indistinguishable mush.
"Legally Blonde" can make a pleasant outing for those who ask nothing more than fond memories of the film. Whether it is worth the ticket price versus re-renting the movie is tougher question.