‘Blonde’ ambition: Kids call the shot in latest Gottlieb production
November 30, 2011
CARBONDALE – Jayne Gottlieb was all set for the winter performance by her Jayne Gottlieb Productions, just about to begin auditions for “Grease,” the enduringly popular and humorous look at high school students in 1950s America. Then she got the notification: the rights to produce “Legally Blonde” had just become available. Gottlieb knew little about the musical, a humorous take on college students in 2000s America; she had a hazy recollection of seeing the 2001 film version, which was not a musical. But she didn’t hesitate in changing direction; when the young actors showed up to audition in late September, instead of black leather jackets and sock hops, they were entering a world of pink dresses and dumb-blonde jokes.
It was a case of Gottlieb taking direction from her actors. Instead of the usual way of picking a musical – Gottlieb telling her troupe what play they would be doing, and then filling them in on the milieu of a decades-old story like “Fiddler on the Roof” or “Hair” – this time, the actors had spoken. Gottlieb might not have known much about “Legally Blonde,” which debuted on Broadway in 2007 (and has not been done by an amateur company in Colorado yet) but the kids sure did.
“Really, it’s because the high school kids have been dying to do it,” Gottlieb said of switching musicals on the fly. “They fell in love with the music and said, We’re dying to do ‘Legally Blonde.’ The kids know the YouTube version inside, outside, upside down. They know this better than me.”
“Neither of us were that familiar with it,” added Logan Carter, Gottlieb’s regular co-director. “But the kids wouldn’t stop begging us.”
Sometime begging the adults does work. Jayne Gottlieb Productions’ version of “Legally Blonde” opens Thursday, Dec. 1 at Carbondale’s PAC3, and runs through Sunday, Dec. 4.
And sometimes the adults give in to kids without thinking through all the consequences. Gottlieb and Carter say they decided to do “Legally Blonde” without giving it much thought. “We were so excited by the kids’ response, we went for it and figured we’d solve problems later,” Gottlieb said. What they have learned over the last few weeks of rehearsal is that “Legally Blonde” represents a leap forward from what might be considered traditional Broadway, This is especially true of the music, which requires a two-person music direction team of Eric Schaudies and Terry Bannon.
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“The music is really hard, so it’s been a long slog,” she said. “It’s all kinds of music; it’s hip-hop and reggae and pop. But I think we’re going to see that more, that complicated stuff. Broadway is changing; it’s something modern and pop and cool, with more complex rhythms and key changes.”
On the surface, the story might have sounded innocent enough: Elle Woods is blonde all the way, a SoCal sorority girl with a penchant for pink outfits and cute teacup dogs. (Chandler Golbus, the 16-year-old Aspen High student who plays her, had to transform herself into a blonde for the role, and also have her braces removed.) Elle’s main ambition is to marry her Harvard Law School-bound boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Robbie Rittenhouse). But Warner explains to Elle that his legal career requires a more serious girlfriend. “Legally Blonde,” which starred Reese Witherspoon in the original film version, becomes an inspirational story as Elle gets into Harvard Law, proves herself resourceful and even brainy, and wins a big murder case.
“It’s very much a power-to-women kind of show,” Carter said. “It’s definitely a show about breaking through stereotypes. It’s about Elle proving to herself and her friends that just because you’re a blonde from Malibu with a little dog doesn’t mean you don’t have a brain.”
But where “Grease” was a nostalgic examination at the ’50s, and kept the sexual innuendo at appropriate levels, “Legally Blonde,” at least as it played on Broadway, was a product of its own time. One musical number, “Bend and Snap,” which describes a technique for attracting guys (“Look at my ass, look at my thighs/I’m catnip to the guys”) uses dance moves and an attitude that didn’t exist in the ’50s. There’s a good bit of discussion of homosexuality and the stereotypes attached to it. The murder case Elle handles turns in part on sperm donation.
“We didn’t realize that the kids begging to do the show, it was not appropriate for them to do this show,” Carter said. “They know all the words and scenes, but we had to explain to them that it just wasn’t appropriate for middle school kids, elementary school kids, to talk about being at a college party and drinking beer.”
Gottlieb and Carter whittled away at the script, occasionally engaging in small battles with the cast (which ranges in age from 6 to 23). In the end, Jayne Gottlieb Productions’ version was clean enough that it is being billed as appropriate for all ages. (The younger kids are kept out of the racier scenes; the sperm donor reference has been made less explicit. And the company has called in a pair of older actors to play the male leads: 23-year-old Nyle Kenning, who has a degree in theater, plays Emmett, Elle’s nerdy, older, helpful classmate; and Rittenhouse, who plays Warner, is 19.
Another challenge has been the adjustment to a new venue. Jayne Gottlieb Productions made their PAC3 debut last summer, with “Rent.” But that show was untraditional in its staging, so an untraditional venue was no great hurdle. “Legally Blonde” requires creative thinking about how to use PAC3.
“I love it. But it’s not a theater. There’s no backstage, no wings,” Gottlieb said. So how do they handle it? “It’s magic. We twitch our noses. And cross our fingers.”
One final challenge is the fact that before it was a musical, “Legally Blonde” was written for the screen – meaning frequent changes of setting that are harder on stage than on film.
Even with the difficulty of the music, the deletion of more grown-up references, the numerous scene changes and the obstacles presented by the theater, Gottlieb and Carter are pleased with their choice – rather, their actors’ choice – of material.
“The script is brilliant. It’s one of those scripts written to make you laugh, to entertain an audience. It’s good to do a funny show,” Gottlieb said. “And it’s very modernly funny. It’s social commentary that the kids get, they understand. The characters are funny; it’s like their friends from everyday life. It’s them.”
Which can’t exactly be said for “White Christmas” or “The Sound of Music” or “Singin’ in the Rain,” all set in an earlier time. “Legally Blonde” is one for the kids.
“I feel like it’s where Broadway’s going,” Gottlieb said. “The Disney things, the big productions, the magic happening on stage, a million things happening at once – that’s what this is. And it’s complicated.”
“It’s so contemporary,” Carter said. “It’s hysterical for adults, too, because it pokes fun at our culture – how appearances can be deceiving, about our definitions of success. It’s not ‘Fiddler on the Roof.'”