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Legally Blonde

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

Although blondes are commonly depicted in the media as less intelligent than women of other hair color, studies show that they are likely to earn more in the marketplace and marry men who are more affluent. Whether this is due to the way they look or their IQ is indeterminate. Nevertheless, like all stereotypes, preconceptions of blondes persist, not just from those on the outside looking in, but from blondes themselves, often leading to diminished expectations regarding their own abilities. (See sidebar for this article, "Do Blondes Really Have More Fun?")

Hayley Podschun as Elle and Curt Hansen as Warner
Hayley Podschun as Elle
and Curt Hansen as Warner
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
In Legally Blonde, the title character, Elle, is exceptionally empowered in her own sphere, carrying a 4.0 average in Fashion Merchandizing at UCLA, serving as president of her sorority, and dating Warner, the handsome, wealthy son of a U.S. Senator. But all her success is called into question when Warner drops a bombshell on her.

How Elle deals with this setback, as well as how she deals with a later incident that threatens her career path, test Elle's concept of herself and create drama over whether she will overcome or succumb.

According to director Gavin Mayer, this is the core of the story.

Hayley Podschun as Elle
Hayley Podschun as Elle
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
"I love the message of the show," Mayer noted in a recent interview. "We actually have much more potential than we realize we do. We've got this incredibly optimistic young girl, who doesn't see anything as an obstacle to getting what she wants. We see how her positivity affects everyone she comes into contact with, including herself, to a degree. Overall, that's the message I'm trying to get across, how we underestimate ourselves."

Part of Elle's challenge is how others perceive her, which is as an attractive blonde who likes to have fun, as well as someone lacking in intelligence and depth. On the surface, Elle seems to be consumed by the latest fashions and all the superficial materialistic symbols that define consumer culture. Indeed, the opening number seems to underscore this idea, essentially setting up the audience to buy into stereotypes.

But Legally Blonde did not garner multiple nominations and awards—seven Tony and ten Drama Desk nominations for its Broadway run, and three Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical, during its West End stay—for letting us hang on to our prejudices.

Hayley Podschun as Elle and her sorority sisters
Hayley Podschun as Elle
and her sorority sisters
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
As Mayer sees it, "It's easy to go to stereotypes —what we assume the typical sorority girl is, or what a typical Harvard student would be—and it's my goal as the director, hopefully, to find the heart of these characters, the essence to build on, and find someone we can all connect to and see that—by not underestimating ourselves and others—someone like Elle is more than just her pocket book and what her dad can buy her, and that she's much more substantive."

That Legally Blonde changes our initial presumptions is a tribute to the stage script, adapted by Heather Hach, from the original 2001 novel by Amanda Brown and to the 2001 screenplay, written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. "That was the part of the story that surprised me," says Mayer, "how good and smart the script was. It's very clever. They've done a great job of taking the essence of the movie and building on it to create a story that has a lot of heart, a lot of comedy."

(Left to right) Sarah Rex as Paulette and Hayley Podschun as Elle
(L to R) Sarah Rex as Paulette
and Hayley Podschun as Elle
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
The script accomplishes this by showing us Elle's ability to master material outside of her comfort zone, to learn by listening to others, and to stand by her own principles. Above all, we see Elle reaching out to help others and share her unique gifts.

There are also some creative story twists and turns that allow Elle to succeed using her knowledge of fashion and beauty secrets. These incidents raise an interesting question: Is it a coincidence that Elle shines in the courtroom because the issues speak to her expertise, or is this what she attracted into her life by being true to herself?

Molly Tynes as Brooke
Molly Tynes as Brooke
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
As strange as it may seem, this question anticipates the plot device in Slum Dog Millionaire (winner of eight 2009 Academy Awards, including Best Picture), where seemingly random incidents in the protagonist's life play a critical part in his storybook success. In Elle's case, her lifetime-garnered knowledge of fashion is directly applicable to specific facts and testimony in the murder trial of Brooke Wyndham.

While on one level it may be easy to attribute these convenient plot details to "poetic license" and let it go at that, on another level what these script elements point out is that each of us is the recipient of many unique gifts which, if we're willing to accept them as such, can play a key role in our personal development and fulfillment. What an empowering thought!

In addition to these uplifting messages, Legally Blonde serves up a healthy dose of theatrical pizzazz, as Mayer explains. "There's a wonderful sense of magic in this show: the sorority sisters are in Elle's imagination, but everyone else can see them; she can stop time with some of the songs, etc."

The theatrical device of stopping the action, to enable a character to express themselves and reveal their emotional state through a song, seems a natural approach for Legally Blonde, since it was derived from a film without musical numbers. Much of the added depth of the stage play comes from these moments, as Mayer elucidates: "The serious moments in the show are emphasized even more because the comedic elements allow us to highlight and stop the action for a minute and get to the heart."

(Left to right) Ben Dicke, Markus Warren, and Matt LaFontaine as the Harvard admissions officers
(L to R) Ben Dicke, Markus Warren,
and Matt LaFontaine
as the Harvard admissions officers
Photo: P. Switzer ©2012
The messages that Elle delivers during these breaks in the action is the heart of the play. Mayer and scenic designer Brian Mallgrave have chosen to symbolize the significance of these messages in the overall production design: "As the characters are touched by Elle, her having an impact on their lives, we're going to be pulling more pink (Elle's signature color) into their costumes, into their palettes, and into their world. "That's how we're trying to show that every realization she has about herself impacts other people in positive ways."

It's fitting that this notion—of Elle converting the gifts she has received from others (personal insights) into helping others—is highlighted in the color scheme, because "paying it forward" is a strategy that has a specific meaning in law, Elle's chosen profession. Given this emphasis in the story—on the law and the study required to master it—it's natural that books are an important element of the production design.

"The set has an academic feel to it," says Mayer. "She's surrounded by books. We're trying to ground her in an academic world, so we get a sense that this is about learning and learning about ourselves."

Indeed, as fanciful as the story may seem—a fair-haired, fashion-obsessed co-ed choosing to become a high-powered attorney—and our unwarranted presumptions aside, the truth is: a blonde empowered by legal training is a force to be reckoned with!

The Arvada Center's production of Legally Blonde runs through July 1st. 720-898-7200 or www.arvadacenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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