Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde, music & lyrics Laurence O’Keefe & Nell Benjamin, book Heather Hatch at Ithaca College (continues November 7, 9 & 10)

bare, music/book Damon Intrabartalo, lyrics/book Jon Hartmere, Risley Theatre (continues November 8-10)

1776, music & lyrics Sherman Edwards, book Peter Stone (closed)

November blew three musicals into town, an uncommonly rich picking. Two tread the pop/rock track while one is more traditional (and of a different generation.)

Ithaca College’s Legally Blonde has ample design and appealing, sharp performances to recommend it. The script adheres fairly closely to the movie; the nattering, bouncy score spends more time storytelling than breaking into song. (Surprising, as O’Keefe & Benjamin penned the sly cult musical Bat Boy.)

Pitching to a pre-sold market, the musical’s team was timid in re-imagining the movie as a play. The best new bit: including the Delta Nu girls as a “Greek chorus” when Elle ships off to Harvard. The slimy professor gets the best-written song (“Blood in the Water,” nicely shaped here by Roger Reed). There’s a snappy MTV-style production with jump ropes, sold with a sassy belt by Grace Stockdale; one sprightly novelty number (“Gay or European”) offers a rhythmic break; and one introspective ballad for the lead in a searing, thoughtful turn by Megan Ort as Elle (who alternates the role with Chloe Tiso).

The leggy, energetic Ort steers this star vehicle with verve, wit and a ready ease with that invokes the best of the movie. She is nicely partnered by Joseph DePietro as a warm and quizzical Emmett, and by DeAnne Stewart as manicurist Paulette in a turn that mixes sass with naiveté (Stewart also displays a soaring voice in her faux-Irish ballad.) Each interruption by the three Delta Nus (Monique Huff, Rebecca Kuznick and Olivia Donalson) provides a breath of zany comic oomph.

This pop-dance show contains some witty work by choreographer Roy Lightner, though like the script, much of it seems mainly efficient and Las Vegas-bound. But, thank god, Greg Robbins’ costumes are to die for!

At Risley, the Melodramatics are putting on bare, about Catholic school kids putting on Romeo and Juliet, doing drugs, and struggling with their sexuality, all centered around the secret relationship between Peter and his jock boyfriend Jason (compelling performances by Jeremy Joseph Ehlinger and Dan Middleditch). Huge amounts of heart, a harder rock score, and sharp lyrics make for a more truly theatrical musical than Legally Blonde. A too stuffed and unvaried first act gives way to a stronger second act (though act one has the gems of “Plain Jane Fat Ass” delivered with wicked sardonic fury by Cara Frisina; and Mother Mary as Diana Ross in “911! Emergency!” given a raucous Motown/gospel belt by Kathryn Allison who plays no-nonsense Sister Chantelle with whiplash humor.)

Act two is emotionally more complex and more spacious: urgent in Peter’s call to mom Clare (“See Me”), tortured in Jason’s ballad of loss (“Once Upon A Time”), bitter for the popular girl Ivy (“All Grown Up”, in a searching performance by Emily Behrmann-Fowler); tender in the boys’ last-minute love duet (“Bare”). As Clare, Eliza VanCort brings a new layer of gravitas in the haunting “Warning” as she faces the truth about her son.

Excellently cast and sung, bare is gracefully directed by Spencer Whale with superb musical direction from Geoff Peterson.

Mr. Peterson could also be found downtown in the Savage Club’s production of 1776 (yes the Declaration of Independence!) giving a powerful rendition of “Mama, Look Sharp.” This plaintive song of a dying soldier evokes the grim realities outside the bickering Continental Congress. Composer Sherman Edwards makes smart use of period minuets, jigs and waltzes, as well as Gilbert & Sullivan patter and parlor-song (bolstered by Peter Stone’s strong book). Of the three musicals it proves the most ebullient, songful, and complete.

Besides Peterson’s soaring, caressing, vibrant voice, we were treated to Thom Baker’s darkish tenor in his splendid rendering of the seductive “Molasses and Rum”. Mark Lawrence was in great tune as agitator John Adams, delightful in his exchanges of letters with Abigail (brilliantly sung by Lisa Banlaki Frank.) Jack Roscoe as a crafty Ben Franklin, Doug Lockwood as a lusty, plainspoken Jefferson and the exhilarating Sally Ramirez as his wife were other standouts in a rollicking cast directed with zest by J.G. Hertzler and given great support by music director Beverly Schmidt.

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