Arts & Culture

‘Blonde’ ambition: Musical makes a statement

The cast of “Legally Blonde: The Musical”: Alison Byrne (kneeling), from left, Brittany Jonas, Justin Ralph, Haley Hungate and Rusty Carbaugh.
The cast of “Legally Blonde: The Musical”: Alison Byrne (kneeling), from left, Brittany Jonas, Justin Ralph, Haley Hungate and Rusty Carbaugh. Courtesy photo

The best thing about the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde,” says Deb Campbell, who is guest-directing the production that opens Thursday at Newman University, is that it has a great message that plays delightful havoc with the age-old dumb blonde stereotype.

“It’s a great show for girls of today because it says there’s nothing wrong with being blonde or liking pink. It’s OK to be a girl and like girly things and still be smart,” says Campbell, longtime local actress, director and founder of Signature Theatre at Scottish Rite Center.

“It’s also a good show for guys because of its work ethic, but there are a lot of shows about guys working hard and proving themselves. The fabulous message for all is that you don’t have to change yourself to fit someone else’s expectations to succeed,” Campbell says.

The musical is based on the hit 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon as a pink-obsessed sorority fashionista who takes Harvard Law School by storm. With music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards (sadly, no wins) when it opened on Broadway in 2007 and was nominated for five Olivier Awards in London in 2010, winning three, including best musical.

In the Newman production, Haley Hungate takes Witherspoon’s role of Elle Woods, who is dumped as “not serious enough” by her Harvard-bound boyfriend, Warner (played by Josh Baalman), and follows him to law school to win him back. Along the way, she discovers her own strengths as an independent woman with the help of another outcast law student named Emmett (Justin Ralph) and a spunky, blue-collar hairdresser named Paulette (CL Smet).

Mary O’Neal plays Vivienne, Warner’s new girlfriend and Elle’s scheming nemesis, and Mark Carlson is law professor Dr. Callahan. Brittany Jonas, Rusty Carbaugh and Alison Byrne play three of Elle’s sorority sisters who occasionally act as an impromptu Greek Chorus to illuminate her inner thoughts. Others in the cast are Sara Ast, Trevor Farney and Lauren Gardner.

“Elle is a fun-loving, all-American girl who just wants to win her boyfriend back (when she goes to Harvard), but finds a deeper meaning to her life,” says Hungate, a senior accounting major previously seen in “Into the Woods” and “Spring Awakening.”

“She’s fun and goofy, but she can be serious as a law student when she needs to be. I like how relatable she is. I am super-involved on campus and in the community. I work hard to build up my resume. And that’s what Elle has done to get what she wants. I am with her at that level,” Hungate says.

Where she and her character differ is that Elle wears her heart on her sleeve a little too much, at least at the beginning. And there’s that pink thing.

“I know that pink looks good on blondes, but all through high school I hated pink. I chose blues and purples,” Hungate says. “But since this show, I’ve begun to like pink again. It’s finding its way into my wardrobe. It’s made an impression on me.”

Justin Ralph says his Emmett character is a hard-working, somewhat nerdy nice guy putting himself through law school – unlike his privileged classmates – who takes himself perhaps a little too seriously.

“Emmett is absolutely driven. He has a clear goal. I can relate to that. He’s also a little goofy. I can also relate to that,” says Ralph, a junior theater major previously seen in two productions of “Into the Woods” and “The Miser.”

“What I like about playing Emmett is that he is a regular guy. Usually, when I’m cast in a musical, it’s as a pretty-boy character like the Prince in ‘Cinderella.’ Emmett is the type of guy who becomes so involved that he forgets to take care of himself or his appearance. He has more important things to think about,” Ralph says.

As self-made hairdresser Paulette, who convinces Elle not to dye her blonde locks dark brown just to look more serious, CL Smet sees her character as the “heart of the show.”

“Paulette is kooky and crazy. She’s a big handful who has a crush on the sexy UPS guy, but the love of her life is her dog, Rufus. She’s 40ish and close to Elle like a big sister. She is on her own journey to find a man and her place in the world,” says Smet, a senior theater major seen in “Buried Child,” “A Little Night Music” and “Into the Woods.”

“I feel that she is the heart of the show because she completely embodies the optimism and joy that the show is all about. She is energetic, lovable and immediately sympathetic to an audience,” Smet says. “You can’t help having fun playing a part like that.”

But the cherry on the sundae, the actress says, is when Paulette gets to sing, or rather, belt.

“Paulette isn’t in a ton of scenes but she is memorable because when she sings, I really get to let loose. The role is a gem.”

If you go

‘Legally Blonde: The Musical’

What: 2007 musical based on Reese Witherspoon’s 2001 movie

Where: De Mattias Fine Arts Center at Newman University, 3100 McCormick

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $12 adults; $10 seniors, staff and faculty; $5 students (free for Newman students); available at the door