DECATUR — For years, most of the big main stage musicals produced by Millikin University have been classics of the musical theater repertoire, the kinds of shows instrumental to a well-rounded college education.
Although these shows are important for students to learn, they’re also limiting. To be truly prepared, students must be ready to audition for the most popular shows currently on tour.
Thus, “Legally Blonde” has come to the Kirkland Fine Arts Center.
“We’ve been working on addressing a pedagogical challenge that we’ve been really good at graduating students who are skilled in the classics, but right now the national tours are very pop-rock,” director Angie Miller said. “To get our students ready for those, we should be doing them here.”
That belief was all it took to land “Legally Blonde,” the popular Broadway musical adaptation of the 2001 romantic comedy film starring Reese Witherspoon in the title role of Elle Woods. In both the film and musical, Woods is a UCLA sorority girl who follows her stuck-up boyfriend Warner Huntington III to Harvard Law School, where she attempts to earn her doctorate in law. Few of the people she meets along the way have faith in this possibility.
“I would describe her as someone who is misunderstood because of her outside appearance and where she’s from,” said Emma Wright, who plays Elle. “They think she’s a ditz, and although she’s friendly and bubbly, she’s also extremely smart and quick-witted. She knows how to represent herself in a way that is friendly but also capable.”
Sean Doherty, who appeared earlier this school year in the Millikin premiere of “String,” plays Emmett Forrest, a lawyer at Harvard who takes Elle under his wing. He said he was excited to be working on a pop-Broadway piece like “Legally Blonde,” and believes this particular film was more inherently suited to adaptation as a musical than many of the similar movie adaptations currently being brought to the stage.
“Pop music is what’s getting butts in the seats of the musical theater world right now, so I think it’s good we’re focusing on it,” he said. “Right now there are so many movies being turned into musicals, but this one inherently had the ability to be a musical. It already had this energy and heightened state that adapts very well to a huge show.”
And “Legally Blonde” will indeed be a huge show on Millikin’s Kirkland stage. The space, as Doherty pointed out, is actually larger than many of the Broadway stages in New York. As such, it needs an exceptionally large cast and set dressings to appropriately fill.
“It has to be the biggest show of the year because of the space,” Miller said. “To put something small up there would never, ever work. If it’s here, we’ve got to go big or go home.”
The musical features a score that draws from classic pop-rock shows of the past while also incorporating a fair amount of hip-hop influence. Arri Pittman leads one of the largest numbers as “fitness queen” Brooke Wyndham, and said she appreciated the way the musical allowed a deeper look at characters such as her own who are only supporting players in the film.
“You get to really see more of everybody,” she said. “The story is always focused on Elle, but we get to understand the characters and motivations of everyone else much more. They’re all fleshed out through their songs.”