Elle yes: Hillbarn’s ‘Legally Blonde’ is big and bold

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Elle Woods (Courtney Hatcher) presents a most interesting personal statement to a Harvard committee member (Ray Ross) in Hillbarn Theatre’s “Legally Blonde,” through Sept. 18th in Foster City. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

It doesn’t take a long time for the musical “Legally Blonde” to get rolling in the right directions. And that’s not a typo. The show moves in so many whiplash-inducing directions that it’s hard to keep track of what the hell is going on.

Leggy college coeds? Check. How about a hunky UPS delivery man? Yup, there’s that too. And don’t forget the following, in no particular order: Rescue dogs who are now musical theatre performers. Greek choruses. Irish folk dancing. Hella lawyers. The traffic-stopping bend and snap, which was apparently invented at UCLA.

Yes folks, the shenanigans don’t stop.

Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre does much to capture the breakneck paced energy of the absurdly plotted musical, first produced on Broadway in 2007 after a San Francisco pre-Broadway tryout. And while there are some limitations in the quirky Hillbarn theatre space, the company put forth a splendid and rollicking production directed with humorous fluidity by Dan Demers and choreographed by Jim Ambler.

The story follows the chipper and idealistic Elle Woods (the always solid Courtney Hatcher) as she bursts onto the scene with her fellow Delta Nu sorority sisters completely in tow. She shares the joy of her impending engagement to budding future lawyer Warner (a milquetoasterrific portrayal by Brad Satterwhite). When things don’t go fully according to plan, Elle concocts a scheme that sees her applying to Harvard Law School by kicking major butt on her LSAT test.

That is pretty darn exciting for Elle, except for the fact that the term “law school” has the word “school” in it. School, as in having to read law books, take tests, and grasp the nuances of cases at an institution that I am assuming might be a bit rigorous. It is a viciously rude awakening for our young charge.

This is the perfect opportunity for fellow student Emmett Forrest (the solidly experienced Justin Buchs) to step in and help out Elle. He is intrigued by what might be inside the mind of Elle, rather than what style her hair is rockin’ on any given day. And while Elle is ultimately given the opportunity to prove herself, it is the belief that people like Emmett have in her that leads her to possibilities she never knew existed.

So is this a coming of age story? A tale of finding that inner fire which leads a young woman to greatness through the hallowed halls of Harvard, one of the most revered academic institutions in the world?

Hell no. This show is fun, fun and then some more fun.

The cast grabs hold of the audience and shakes the crap out of them through so many fierce performances that cohere wonderfully.

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Elle (Hatcher) and Paulette (Gennine Harrington) talk about love and Ireland. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Not every bit worked, which had more to do with the script than the performance of said script. While so many of the songs featured some delicious chill-inducing harmonies, led by music director Rick Reynolds, a few numbers don’t have a ton of joy or laughs. Gennine Harrington as Paulette singing “Ireland” is an absolute showstopper of the highest order, along with the show getting off to a rocking start with the big ensemble number “Omigod You Guys.”

There are also numbers such as “Gay or European,” which is a fun enough production number, but the stereotypical trope of how gay people supposedly communicate certainly feels dated.

If you look at Hillbarn’s marketing campaign, this is a company that believes wholeheartedly in Hatcher. She is a marvelous rising talent that really has to embrace lots of range that this role requires. From a complete ditz to a maturing, young attorney who learns that intellect is the most desired quality, Hatcher is someone who understands what moments in a play are supposed to be, and what each moment requires for maximum truth or laughs. And as far as vocal range goes, Hatcher flat out wails, even incorporating some beautifully timed scats at various moments.

Even though the show’s structure has a fierce dose of leading lady starpower, it’s a show that features the ensemble prominently. Catrina Manahan’s Pilar is delightful and full of joy. Elana Ron as Enid features a bustling maturity and energy. And Ray D’Ambrosio brings a grounded maturity and smarminess to his portrayal of Professor Callahan.

And certainly who can forget about those performing pooches, Wilbur as Elle’s sidekick Bruiser, and Remy as Dewey, a dog who gets caught in the crossfire of Paulette’s breakup from her beer-swillin’ beau. Hillbarn collaborated with the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, bringing the opportunity to go home with a cast member a real possibility.

Technically, the show is solid, led by Lighting Designer Don Coluzzi and Scenic Designer Kuo-Hao Lo, who did a nice job of creating minimal pieces to suggest bigger ideas and locales. And the work of Costume Designer Kat Pruyn and Hair and Wig Designer Dee Morrissey were essential to create the world full of bright, vibrant colors.

What this production gets right is its commitment to boldness. You might not like every choice made, but I can get behind big, bold choices on the stage every single time. As preposterous as the show’s premise is, it doesn’t take away from the sheer joy the cast brings. Put another way, any show that can go from jazz squares to river dancing is all right by me.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Hillbarn Theatre Company presents “Legally Blonde”
Music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Book by Heather Hach
Directed by Dan Demers
Choreographed by Jim Ambler
The Word: At times irreverent, but mostly a witty and jolly musical with the endearing Elle Woods singing and dancing her way through Harvard.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Sept. 18th
Hillbarn Theatre
1285 Hillsdale Blvd. Foster City, CA 94404
Tickets range from $45 – $48
For tickets, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org

One thought on “Elle yes: Hillbarn’s ‘Legally Blonde’ is big and bold

  1. Good review…we might disagree on some smaller points (Professor Callahan was maybe 75% of what I thought he should have been on the smarmy and sleazy scale) and I did not see any whales during the “wailing” songs, but the show is fantastic and our small group really enjoyed it. Mark’s photos used above do a great job of capturing the fun and intensity of the production as well.

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