On Baylor’s "Legally Blond": substance v. appearance

I spent a delightful Sunday afternoon at Baylor’s theater watching a very strange musical that often seemed more a documentary than a satirical parody of sorority/college life. The book for this sprightly musical was actually much deeper than it appeared on the surface, serving as a self-referential trope for the show’s main them–substance versus appearance. Marilyn or Jackie? All of these young characters are struggling with how their appearance dictates how they are received by others, and the title character, Elle, struggles with her budding intellect which seems to clash with her obsession with her appearance, her clothing, and her social life. Dumped by her long-time boyfriend, she mounts a major attack on getting into Harvard Law. The cast of thousands, energetic singers and dancers, lights up the stage with more energy and verve than a late summer hurricane, keeping the audience awake and the story moving along. What makes this story so interesting is its ability to recognize and reaffirm everyone’s obsession with outward appearance whether they are cheerleaders, college admissions directors, or hairdressers. LB is a coming-of-age story of a post-postmodern woman who has majored in the ultimate post-postmodern major–fashion merchandising. At once she is both a sunny trope for a lite California consumer society and a darkly reactionary conservative ’50’s style society in which Ozzie and Harriet are still in vogue, trading all of her dreams and intellectual pursuits for a “ring by spring,” only to have her dreams crushed by a shallow and superficial man who needs someone “less Marilyn and more Jackie,” diametrically opposed female figures from the fifties and early sixties. Elle’s coming of age is a painful intellectual journey in which she must travel away from herself, deny her inner-self and try to simulate “a more serious person.” When she finally chooses to embrace her true self, she also rejects her old boyfriend. When she finally realizes she has value as an independent person with her own agency, she can finally put behind her the disappointment and sadness of her failed relationship. Though this is a comedy, there are dark shadows that hover about the action–judging people strictly by the way they look, sexual harassment, predetermined sexual stereotypes, cynical Black Friday consumerism, women as objects, rampant sexism, and a pervasive growing secularism. The tragedy framed within this comedy is the death of real substance, which is quickly being replaced by blatant consumerism and secular materialism. The enthusiastic good humor of the cast often clashes violently with the darker messages they are singing about. Yet, Elle (a superb Sarah Beard whose comic genius really pulls together the entire production) and her friends are most certainly post-modern, facing the cognitive vacuity of their own superficial lives with a smile on their faces and song in their hearts. The supporting cast handled their straight lines with the appropriate deadpan deliveries that made the audience believe them and the comedy work. Hats off to Stan Denman for a highly charged, (almost too) daring, well-paced professional production of a challenging play. Keeping all of those cast members sufficiently reined in to avoid total chaos on stage must have been a challenge. Special mention needs to go to the lighting engineers and the musical directors who showed that the devil is in the details, not in the Prada.