Even though she often stole the show with her comic Fran Drescher-type voice in Music Theatre’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” Anne Horak is ready to show Wichita theatergoers that she really does have a lovely voice after all.
Horak plays the pink-loving, tiny-dog-carrying but definitely not dumb sorority fashionista of “Legally Blonde,” which opens Wednesday as a first-time offering for Music Theatre and a capper for this 41st season.
Of course, Horak has proved her ear-enchanting abilities in past years with such shows as “Beauty and the Beast” (Babette), “A Chorus Line” (Judy) and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Miss Dorothy). But her recent turn as silent film siren Lina Lamont, whose screech of a voice hilariously doomed her transition to talkies, was such a tour de force performance that it may have clouded audience memories.
“I’m really ready to go back to my normal voice for this show,” Horak says with a laugh. “Lina was fun, but this is where I live.”
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In “Legally Blonde,” Horak plays Elle Woods, a California sorority girl who follows her handsome, arrogant boyfriend to Harvard Law School. When he dumps her for a brainy, driven barracuda he considers a worthier mate, she decides to become a lawyer herself and show the world what she’s got.
“Elle is smart and passionate and a good and true friend,” says Horak, who was on Broadway with the new stage version of “White Christmas” and has made TV guest appearances on such shows as “Law & Order: SVU,” “Royal Pains” and last year’s “A Gifted Man.”
“She is aware what people think of blondes, but she owns it. When they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, she says that a book needs an attractive cover to be picked up. I love that she’s not afraid to be feminine or fashionable. She doesn’t doubt herself,” Horak says. “I love that she never apologizes, even when she realizes she’s been the butt of a terrible joke. She just turns it back on them.”
Based on the hit 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon that was adapted from the novel by Amanda Brown, this stage musical by Lawrence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin (music and lyrics) and Heather Hach (book) hit Broadway in 2008, receiving seven Tony Award nominations and 10 Drama Desk nominations.
Though popular with audiences, it failed to win any awards. But a revised version with tweaked lyrics that opened in London in 2009 was nominated for five Olivier Awards (England’s equivalent of the Tony) and won three, including best new musical. That is the version Music Theatre is premiering, says director Wayne Bryan.
“We wanted to do it because it is a brand-new, contemporary show that has surprisingly sophisticated pop music. It never stoops to preaching, but it is about empowerment of women. It has some timeless themes even though it’s cartoony,” Bryan says. “Is it a show for the ages? We’ll have to see. Is it fun? Oh, yeah.”
Music director Thomas W. Douglas, who will conduct a 12-piece orchestra, echoes Bryan’s thoughts about the depth of the music for such a seemingly frivolous show.
“It has comic elements, but the music is serious. It’s pop music on the surface but infused with R&B and classical elements with bits of Irish jig, rap and ballad,” Douglas says. “These are not just songs with four chords like a lot of pop music. When you dig into them, they are surprisingly sophisticated.”
Matthew Shepard, best remembered here as the driven and obsessive Inspector Javert of “Les Miserables,” plays arrogant Harvard law professor Callahan, who snidely dismisses Elle as unserious and unsuitable for the noble profession of law but grudgingly comes to appreciate her determination to succeed.
“Callahan isn’t really a villain or a bad guy, but he is the antagonist of the show,” says Shepard, who was on Broadway in title roles in “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel” as well as playing Enjolras in the national tour of “Les Miz.”
“Callahan is ambitious and arrogant and has no conscience about hurting people if they are in his way. His whole thing is about winning, no matter what,” Shepard says. “He is not impressed by Elle’s looks, but when he discovers that she is a competent, formidable woman – that, he finds attractive.”
Shepard says he enjoys playing dark roles like Javert and Callahan because they are so far from his own experiences. “I like the make-believe. I like doing something I could never do in real life,” says the soft-spoken Shepard, who is a real-life voice professor at New York’s Steinhardt School of Music when not on stage.
Playing a bookish teaching assistant who becomes Elle’s ally in battles against Callahan is Skyler Adams, who spent two summers in Music Theatre’s resident company and is back for his first guest role. Playing Paulette, a spunky campus hairdresser who becomes Elle’s best friend, is Colleen Hawks, making her Music Theatre debut after appearing on Broadway with “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “The Boy from Oz” (starring Hugh Jackman) and “Shrek: The Musical.”
“Emmett is a nice guy, but he’s goal-oriented and extremely focused. He doesn’t care what other people think about him, but he knows he doesn’t want to play the game like Callahan. He believes he can be successful and be a nice guy,” says Adams, best remembered here as the hapless, love-struck Hero in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
“Paulette is a woman who has made bad choices but has learned to stand up for herself,” says Hawks, a California native who began her career singing Disney princess roles like Snow White, Cinderella and Ariel on stage and TV. “She is warm and genuine and shows Elle how to find her strength in style.”
Other key players are Ryan Vasquez as Warner Huntington III, the chauvinistic jerk who dumps Elle; Julia Johanos as Vivienne, Warner’s new main squeeze at Harvard; Sophie Menas as Brooke Wyndham, a celebrity fitness guru accused of murdering her billionaire husband who becomes Elle’s first big client; and KSN meteorologist Dave Freeman and Tracy Freeman as Elle’s parents.
Choreographer and associate director is California-based Roger Castellano, now in his 11th season with MTW, most recently with “Xanadu” last year. The set is by Chicago-based J Branson, who started his career as a Music Theatre apprentice 34 years ago. Costumes are by Leon Dobkowski, best remembered for his spectacular creations in last year’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”