Q&A: ‘Legally Blonde’ stars ‘bend and snap’ into Keegan Theatre

August 12, 2019

Courtesy Keegan Theatre

The 2001 film earned Golden Globe nods for Best Picture and Best Actress for Reese Witherspoon, while the 2007 Broadway musical earned seven Tony nods.

This month, “Legally Blonde” dazzles Keegan Theatre now through Sept. 8.

“It’s been in community theaters, but this is the first professional production in D.C.” director Ricky Drummond told WTOP. “We’re lucky enough to get the rights to it before anyone else. … You look at some movies from the early 2000s and you say, ‘There are some problems,’ but there’s something about ‘Legally Blonde’ that still strikes as true — the message of Elle having to be taken seriously, given her shot and coming into her fullness as a human, not just as a blonde.”

Based on the novel by Amanda Brown and screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, the musical is adapted by Heather Hach. It follows the story of popular sorority girl Elle Woods (Gabriella DeLuca), who is on top of the world until her boyfriend Warner dumps her to attend Harvard Law. Determined to get him back, she charms her way into the same law school, where she clashes with peers, professors and her ex, while proving herself and realizing her potential.

“Elle Woods is living her Barbie doll life in Los Angeles at UCLA, she’s president of her sorority, she has her dream boyfriend she’s ready to spend the rest of her life with,” DeLuca said. “The show opens up with what she thinks is going to be his proposal, but she finds out that he is ready to move on because he needs someone more serious who can handle his aspirations for his future. She comes up with this pretty ridiculous plan: ‘I’ll just follow him to Harvard Law School.'”

This zany scheme is not only a hilarious ride, it reveals certain thematic truths.

“She ends up learning a very special lesson about what she had inside of her, what goals actually are important to her and what her dreams actually are, regardless of a man,” DeLuca said. “It becomes less about finding the guy than it is about finding that woman inside of her that was actually her goal all along.”

DeLuca makes the role her own after such an iconic turn by Witherspoon.

“I definitely have fond memories to when the movie came out,” DeLuca said. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it. It’s just one of those classics in pop culture. For the stage version, I was actually lucky enough to be in New York the summer it opened as part of a summer program. One of the activities we did was they took us to see the original Broadway production. … I’ve definitely had my eye on this show since it opened and I’ve really wanted to get my hands on it.”

Co-star Emily Madden plays Margot, one of the Delta Nu sorority sisters.

“Margot is secretly the smartest one, but all of her lines are seemingly pretty stupid and ditsy,” Madden said. “Everyone thinks that maybe she doesn’t have it all together, but she has some pretty snappy lines. In her mind, when she thought Elle was getting proposed to, she not only would have been the maid of honor, she would have also been planning the wedding. … We’re Elle’s best friends.”

Their self-esteem building takes the form of fun dream sequences.

“We’re her Greek chorus cheering her on, so we have some awesome songs where we’re not actually there, we’re just in her mind,” Madden said. “We do ‘Positive’ when Elle finds out her ex-fiance has a new girlfriend. That’s when we first appear as her cheerleaders. … We also appear in Paulette’s head before ‘Bend & Snap’ when we’re trying to help her talk to this guy she doesn’t like.”

Those are just two of the bouncy tunes by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, who also adapted “Mean Girls” (2004) into a Tony nominee. At Keegan, the music is directed by Walter “Bobby” McCoy with dance choreography by Ashleigh King.

“It is just song after song that feels like a rock concert,” DeLuca said. “One of her biggest moments is the song that closes Act One, [‘So Much Better’], when she finds out she’s actually going to work an internship. … That is her first moment of believing in herself and having a pickup with her self-esteem. … Musically, it’s a really exciting number that ends Act One on a high note, changes the pace of Elle’s journey at Harvard and shifts the tide to this more self-reflexive journey.”

Visually, the campus setting is brought to life by set designer Matthew Keenan.

“When it was on Broadway, it had huge sets rolling on and off, [but] Keegan Theatre is a 125-seat theater, very small,” Drummond said. “There are upward of 30 locations in this script, so trying to do full stage transformations for those is just not possible. We went a more minimalist route using the lights. … If you see a stage one way, then you move two chairs out and bring in a table and a big pink chair, suddenly it’s a new space. We make use of the audience’s imagination.”

The color pink is also big for costumer designer Alison Samantha Johnson.

“There’s no way I’ve ever had as many costumes in a show,” DeLuca said. “In addition to the amount of costumes, the changes from one to the next are so quick. There’s not one change where I have time to go to the dressing room. Every single one is backstage. So, I begin my preparations by bringing literally every costume up to this special area where I need it for my quick change.”

Her co-stars say it’s quite comical watching her carrying her costumes backstage.

“At the beginning of the show, she has to preset all of her costumes,” Madden said. “We’ll be in the girls’ dressing room and she quite literally piles up her arm to the top of her head of the costumes she has to bring upstairs. It is so funny.”

The hardworking crew is filled with local artists who deserve your support.

“I grew up in Manassas, then went to high school in Alexandria at Bishop Ireton,” Drummond said. “I went to James Madison University and studied musical theatre. … The first professional gig I had out of collage was at Keegan Theatre when I did ‘Dog Fight’ four years ago. This is the eighth time I’ve worked with Keegan. I’ve performed in four shows and directed three hildren’s programs.”

While Drummond grew up in Virginia, Madden hails from Maryland.

“I grew up in Bethesda and went to Walt Whitman High School,” Madden said. “I also grew up going to Musical Theater Center in Rockville. … It taught a lot about being a part of an ensemble, which really made me stick with musical theater going forward. I just loved that idea of community. I ended up going to University of Miami in Florida and majored in musical theater, but weighed the pros and cons: Do I want to come to D.C. or go to New York? I decided to come home.”

As for the show’s leading star, it’s been a welcome homecoming.

“I am born and raised in Silver Spring,” DeLuca said. “I started at Burn Brae Dinner Theatre, [then] went to Musical Theater Center in Rockville. They taught me everything I know. It’s also coincidentally where I met my cast-mate Emily. … I went to University of Michigan where I majored in musical theater and moved to New York actually, but the D.C. theater scene has really been growing at an incredible pace over the last 10 years, so it’s hard to resist not coming back.”

Besides supporting local talent, you should simply come to have a good time.

“The biggest reason to come see ‘Legally Blonde’ is it’s so much fun,” Drummond said. “It has all of the wonderful things that musical theater has to offer: amazing choreography, the score is fantastic, it lifts your spirits and there is heart in there that you find in Act Two. You are along for the ride and just find yourself smiling.”

Hear our full conversation with the cast and director of “Legally Blonde” below:

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