The benefits of OPRF's summer theater production

'Legally Blonde' is a much bigger deal than you might think

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By Doug Deuchler

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Artbeat

When I arrived at the high school, I was promptly escorted to the student rehearsal already in progress. Sixty-some students were on stage running through a very lively dance number from OPRF's "summer musical," Legally Blonde. The show opens this Friday night. 

OK. I'll admit upfront that till that morning I never saw the Reese Witherspoon film upon which this show is based. I always assumed it was just some cheesy chick-flick about a bimbo Barbie Doll who somehow goes to law school. I remember reading Witherspoon had a different hairstyle for every scene. Give me a break. 

But then I caught the film via On Demand, planning to watch only 10 minutes or so just to get the flavor. I ended up enjoying the 2001 crowd-pleaser so much I watched all 96 minutes. The main character is likeable and smart, not an irritating, superficial blonde airhead. She actually has a brain. And there's none of the crudeness and vulgarity that plagues so many of today's screen comedies aimed at the "youth market."

The plot focuses on a sorority girl named Elle, like the magazine, who struggles to win back her cute but ruthlessly ambitious upper-class boyfriend who has dumped her. 

The OPRF summer musical version is the popular 2007 Broadway adaptation with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. 

"I know audiences are really going to enjoy this production," said director Amelia Kmiec. "We have such a terrific cast of truly talented students. They are all working very, very hard. The tech support is wonderful. The music is so catchy and invigorating. This show is high-energy and upbeat from start to finish.

"There are misconceptions about Legally Blonde," she said, "that it's just corny fluff and not racially diverse. But I think people will be pleased to see what we're doing with it. There are many musicals made from movies now — Shrek and lots of others. But none of them are as solid and fun as this one."

As I chat with Kmiec, perched on her lap is her little dog, who will portray Elle's Chihuahua "Bruiser" in the show.

Julie Cozette plays the demanding, high-energy lead role of Elle and has already clearly nailed it, judging by her performance in rehearsal. I could see I'd probably never get a moment to chat with her. 

"Julie's on stage the majority of the show except for costume and wig changes," explained make-up and hair technician Patt Cheney. "This is the end of my 40th season here. This group of kids this summer seems especially talented. So many strong voices! There are a few upper classmen but the majority are incoming freshmen. It's exciting."

Jeffrey Kelly, the costume designer, was facing an all-nighter as I chatted with him. The next day would be his marathon mega-fitting day. Scores of costume racks surrounded him while he sewed. He was receiving a bit of back-up assistance from the mother of two sisters in the cast as he spoke fondly about working with director Kmiec back when she was an OPRF student in the 1990s. 

"Amelia was heavily involved in our theater program," Kelly recalled. "I directed her in several of the musicals and hoped she would continue training as a theater professional. I'm really very proud of her and find it so rewarding to be designing this show with Amelia at the helm."

Senior Jonas Talandis plays law professor Callahan. 

"This summer experience is really fun," he said. "It's a lot different from being involved in a production during the school year. Students are more involved with the process, hands-on, building the set or whatever, though the adult leadership is always on board too, of course."

Simon Boyle, a sophomore, plays Emmett, a nice-guy law student who takes Elle under his wing. 

"I've done two other shows here. This summer program is so wonderful since you get to connect more with people you've known a little," he observed, "but this is more intense, more heightened. With newer shows like this one, it's also technically more complicated."

Kelly added, "I always really enjoy the summer project because it develops that bond of a shared goal — like in athletics. It's so great for this team of students just entering OPRF who can plug into the whole exciting theater program. They immediately feel part of something they appreciate, which fulfills them. I even have kids who work in shifts helping on costume support."

And it's a far bigger show than you might imagine. There are 27 different locations in Legally Blonde. There are over 400 props. Each character (64 students) has three or four costume changes. Elle, the lead, has about 10. 

Senior Rebecca Galkin, the student director, noted, "This experience is so fulfilling. I have a variety of responsibilities, from taking notes used for working with the actors to hunting down costume pieces. It's such a delightful, upbeat show — a good, solid story with catchy songs. I know anyone who comes to see it will love it."

While I watch the students working on a dance number, I am especially impressed with the student rehearsal pianist, Ryan Declan. Wow, is he good.

Meredith McGuire is the musical director. Allison Hornung and Jennifer Kanwischer are the choreographers. Technical direction is by Teslen Sadowski and Christopher Scholtens.

"We have a lot of students involved, in addition to those performing on stage," Kmiec explained. "We will have 22 playing in the pit orchestra. There are 32 kids in the crew."

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Patricia Howard Woytek from Oak Park  

Posted: July 14th, 2016 11:58 PM

Correction: The pianist's name is Declan Ryan.

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