'Legally Blonde' has Roxy’s Downtown in the pink

In the musical version of the popular rom-com, an exuberant cast and inspiring message combine for an exhilarating on-stage experience

'Legally Blonde' has Roxy’s Downtown in the pink
Koko Blanton as Elle Woods lands a spot at Harvard Law School on the strength of her song-and-dance essay in "Legally Blonde," on stage at Roxy's Downtown through June 8. Courtesy photo.

There's a party in downtown Wichita from now until June 8th. Roxy’s Downtown is ending their season with “Legally Blonde,” a musical written by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin with a book by Heather Hach, based on the novel by Amanda Wood and the 2001 film of the same name. There was an electric atmosphere on opening night, and when the lights came up it found a spark on stage.

The musical version of “Legally Blonde” has been on a tear of local popularity the past few years, which reflects a national trend. Playbill.com has “Legally Blonde” listed as the ninth most produced musical of 2023. This version, directed by Rick Bumgardner, is fast paced, high energy, and an effective after-dinner mint to follow their most recent, and much heavier, production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret.”

Most of us are familiar with the story. Sorority girl extraordinaire Elle Woods (Koko Blanton) anticipates an engagement to her socialite boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Wyman Wheeler), but is instead met with an unexpected breakup. Warner wants a “Jackie,” not a “Marilyn,” and ends the relationship to focus on his ambition. To regain his love, Elle decides to follow her beau to Harvard and study law alongside him. She skips a few parties, studies for the LSAT, submits a song and dance essay, and lands among the beige of Cambridge. Like Elle says, “as if it were hard.” While there, she falters, recovers, and then kicks ass with the help of a sweet third-year law student, Emmett Forrest (Hunter Bartholomew), and quirky hair salon owner Paulette Buonufonte (Rachel Downs). Our spunky ingenue eventually discovers her value is not tied to blond hair and the love of a boy, but brains and belief in self. This is a “don’t judge a book by its cover” story, bundled with plenty of musical theater “rock and romp,” and dressed in layers of pink and pizazz.

Wyman Wheeler as Warner Huntington III with his "Jackie" (Julia Faust). Photo courtesy of Roxy's Downtown.

Koko Blanton, starring as Elle Woods, gives this production a fresh take on the signature role. Traditionally Elle Woods is a stereotypical rich white girl with blonde hair. In Roxy’s production, she is a woman of color with beautiful blonde extensions. Blanton has all the goods to play Elle Woods: a big voice, solid movement, and high-energy vocal delivery, but language specific to natural hair color, diversity, and “ethnic movement” will seem a little out of place. What is lovely about this increasingly popular casting choice is Elle Woods becomes a stand-in for all women pushing against the assumption of ability. This casting opens the spotlight from a singular demographic to the universal scope of all women. Let's be honest, are we hanging on every word looking for hyperrealism, or do we want to rock out and celebrate women? I think the latter, and Blanton gives us all the reasons to celebrate.

Other stand-out performances include Rachel Downs as the eccentric Paulette. It isn’t easy to recreate roles made famous in film. Jennifer Coolidge created the iconic on-screen version of this character, and Downs prudently chooses to avoid impersonation, making the character her own to the delight of everyone. Downs clearly understands the assignment of staging a light book musical in a cabaret-style theater. While never disengaging with her scene partners, Downs also has an inviting “wink/nudge” awareness of the audience. Nick Albrecht as Professor Callahan and Kelcy Mohr as Brooke Wyndham both maintain this awareness, showing their maturity as performers. What other cast members lack in experience they make up for in exuberance and never let the party falter.

Rachel Downs wisely chooses to make the role of Paulette Buonufonte her own in the musical version of "Legally Blonde" at Roxy's Downtown. Photo courtesy of Roxy's Downtown.

The music in this show brings the freedom of pop with just enough complexity to keep it interesting. The opening numbers, “Omigod” (Act I) and “Whipped into Shape” (Act 2), are textbook energy drivers, and the ensemble works nicely together executing choreography by Courtney Wages that fills the limited stage space. Crowd favorites arrived at the perfect time, near the second act climax with “Bend and Snap” and “There, Right There” with Blanton featured and an enthusiastic supporting cast. It was a thrill to have live musicians when so many semi-professional and college groups are turning to karaoke-style backing tracks, and Paul Graves (music director/keyboards) made it worth the extra resources. The band was situated above the upstage portion of the stage, keeping them just out of sight and out of mind. It would have been helpful to actors and band members to have visual contact, even if only digital, to help keep the recitative-style verses together. I suspect some issues of timing, along with a few group singing intonation problems, will dissipate with a series of repetitions under their belt.

The architecture of Roxy’s presents a challenge for scenic designers. J Branson judiciously arranged a few walls with functional entrances and carry-on pieces with a beautiful pink paint job executed by Rachel Downs (yes, the same one). The pink textured environment with Delta Nu lettering really set the stage for the opening scene. When the show shifts to Harvard, however, all the pink made it feel like Elle never left home. Mid-2000s period costumes by Chadwick Armstrong were the only visual clue we were at Harvard. Projections are popular in theaters everywhere but are often used to compensate rather than augment, and they do the same here.

“Legally Blonde” is the perfect season closer. Cast and crew had the full support of the audience on opening night, and this connection offered a celebratory feel from the top of the show to the final bows. Sir John Gielgud once said, “style is knowing what kind of play you are in.” Roxy’s Downtown is bursting with style this month, and I recommend you find your favorite pink attire and join them in the party.

The Details

“Legally Blonde”
Showing through June 8 at Roxy’s Downtown, 412 ½ E. Douglas Ave. in Wichita. (Enter on the north side of the building.)
Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday evenings and 2 p.m. Saturdays. Two additional shows have been added: 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 29 and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 2.
Tickets are $35.71 plus fees when purchased online. Call (316) 265-4400 to order by phone. Food and drinks are available for purchase before and during the show.

Leslie Coates is a theatre faculty member at Butler Community College and has acting and directing credits from San Diego to New England. He is a former board member for Forum Theatre Company where he also appeared in Christmas Letters, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and various Words and Music performances.

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