REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Remember the name Sara Gilbert. The sixteen-year-old Santa Susana High School junior delivered a mature, engaging, and perfectly executed performance as Elle Woods, the misunderstood Malibu fashionista who dares to enroll in Harvard’s vaunted law school in the musical Legally Blonde. The show completed a weeklong engagement with a sold-out crowd at the school’s Performing Arts Center Saturday night. Gilbert, who has spent the last five years on stage mainly in ensemble roles, vaulted into the limelight in this, her first starring performance. Gilbert, who I profiled in the Simi Valley Acorn this week (http://www.simivalleyacorn.com/news/2014-01-31/On_The_Town/Simi_actress_lands_first_lead_role.html), is an “A” student who has her mind set on a career on stage, but is refreshingly realistic about the long odds of her doing so. In the meantime, she has had the week of her life performing in her first lead role. For one so young, Gilbert has tremendous poise, charisma, and stage presence. She brings a triple threat of talent to her work: an attractive singing voice that never wavers, outstanding acting skills, and the ability to move with agility and confidence. To this she adds a shining countenance that you just don’t see on the faces of most high school students. We can’t say with any certainty what will happen if she pursues a theater career, but we will say that she can do it, if she gets the right breaks.
Of course, Legally Blonde is not what we would call “classic Broadway.” It’s a trifle of a show that was produced as a vehicle to take advantage of the popular 2001 film on which it is based. The story, about a bubbly sorority girl who talks her way into Harvard Law School, is far-fetched at every turn. When she substitutes an in-person cheerleading routine for a college application and gets accepted, you know that everything that comes after will be ridiculous and absurd. Once you accept the show for the farce that it is, the ensuing antics become easier to swallow. The show is full of gimmicks (a dance routine using jump-ropes), stereotypes (especially with regard to gay characters), and cliched dialog, but its energy is hard to deny. Still, a leading role is a leading role, and for all the dramatic meat that this show lacks, Gilbert had to be on stage for nearly every scene, and never showed any signs of stress or missteps.
Gilbert had help in all the right places. Melissa Albertson directed her charges well, with help from co-director Emily Tusynski. Kyle Kerr’s lighting design was evocative and well-thought-out, and the choreography, designed by the students, was energetic and stylish (aside from a few missed jump-rope steps). Aside from Gilbert, the singing and acting abilities were what you might expect from a high school production, however, since Santa Susana is a magnet school for the performing arts, there were some exemplary performances, in addition to Gilbert’s, that stood out.
Michael Kennedy is another talented youngster who has impressed in the past. He was a solid lead performer as Albert Peterson in 2012’s Bye, Bye Birdie and he also did well in the school’s production of Mame. In Blonde, Kennedy played Elle’s Harvard mentor Emmett, a leather-elbow-patched law student who Elle teaches to be fashionable. His reedy voice is strong, but unusual for that of a leading man. This can come in handy if given the right parts, such as J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or in a number of comedic roles. Kennedy’s most attractive feature is his acting ability. His scenes with Gilbert were remarkably nuanced, with great timing, and pauses in all the right places. The two played off each other beautifully and their scenes together were the highlights of the show.
Shannon Smith has been a Santa Susana scene stealer for several years now. An audience favorite, Smith played zaftig beautician Paulette, who had the best vocal moment of the show when she sang the waltz “Ireland,” by far the best song in the musical, attracting a rousing ovation from the audience. Natalia Vivino is, like Gilbert, a talented, confident performer with a good future ahead of her (she was a finalist in the National High School Musical Theater Awards last year), but also realizes the odds against her “hitting the big time.” Vivino played Vivienne, Elle’s no-nonsense competitor in the law school, who is the character that grows the most during the show, when she recognizes that she had underestimated Elle’s abilities.
Elle’s Greek chorus was properly bouncy and perky, while Forrest Holt (Professor Callahan), Gabriel McDonald (Warner), and Rhianna Wicken (Brooke) all performed admirably in key supporting roles.
Kathryn Kuby led the sizable all-student orchestra; vocal director was Bevin Abbe, with Claudia Barton, set design.