This musical was based on a surprisingly intelligent movie that offered an unconventional brand of feminism by showing a pretty, fashion-conscious, seemingly familiar stereotype showing greater intelligence and achieving greater depth than anyone thought her capable of.
While the movie does lose a lot without Reese Witherspoon’s flawless performance, which managed to convey an enormous amount of intelligence and depth, her replacement, Laura Bell Bundy, does a fine job, selling the character very convincingly, conveying her personal changes vividly, and singing the part superbly, and the stage version is generally a capable and sincere adaptation of the material.
The book is quite faithful to the movie script, telling the story of a seemingly airheaded College cheerleader who, dumped by her ambitious boyfriend, follows him to Harvard law school to win him back, only to undergo a great deal of personal growth from the experience, ultimately outgrowing and rejecting him while cultivating a close friendship with the woman who was initially her romantic rival.
Most importantly, the show retains the movie’s greatest strength…female characters who have concerns and aspirations beyond just men and romance. Granted, the stage show enlargess the role of her eventual romantic connection (who is actually rather downplayed in the film) and the degree of guidance he provides her on her journey, but this does serve to get the audience more emotionally involved in the love story, and his influence never reaches the point where it undermines Elle’s sense of personal achievement or the message of feminist independence.
Composer Laurence O’Keefe was previously best known for the lauded off-Broadway cult flop Bat Boy: The Musical, and he provided a surprisingly sophisticated score that favors extended, complex musical sequences over the simple pop-style songs one would expect in a work like this. Several of the numbers are excellent, including the deliciously slimy “Blood in the Water” for the villainous law professor (memorably played by the great Michael Rupert); the lengthy musical scene detailing Elle’s transformation into a serious law student, “Chip On My Shoulder”; the juvenile but undeniably hilarious “There! Right There!” (a.k.a. “Gay or European?”); and the gently expanding closer “Find My Way”. There’s also “Ireland”, which, given that it’s a tribute to terrible Nineties Easy-Listening, is a surprisingly attractive ballad.
The rest of the score, while catchy and perky, and always well-suited to the story and characters, is somewhat less interesting, but the only real dud is “Bend and Snap”, which sounds like a Contemporary R&B booty-jam and is wildly out of place with the rest of the show’s “Girl Power” message.
This show has become particularly popular as a staple of stock and amateur productions, and it’s not hard to see why…it doesn’t require a star, provides lots of good performance opportunities (particularly to the dancers), and offers an uncomplicated, old-fashioned-good-time theater experience that doesn’t attempt any heavy or depressing drama yet doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, either, and still manages to provide a sincere feel-good message at the end (much like its direct predecessor, Hairspray, did). This isn’t a masterpiece on the level of the other Girl-Power smash of the decade, Wicked, but it’s a highly enjoyable piece of theater that has fairly earned its immense popularity.