Theater / Film

Actors’ Playhouse builds a case for the power of pink in ‘Legally Blonde: The Musical’

Written By Christine Dolen
January 31, 2024 at 2:13 PM

Becca Andrews is Elle Woods in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” at the Miracle Mile Theatre in Coral Gables through Feb. 25. (Photo courtesy of Gregory F Reed, MFA)

Before Elle Woods, there was the Barbie doll, Mattel’s 65-year-old ageless wonder.  After Elle Woods, there was “Barbie” the movie, the box office giant killer with a $1.4 billion (and counting) worldwide gross.

But in between?  Elle Woods triumphed in 2001’s “Legally Blonde,” 2003’s “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde” and on Broadway in 2007’s “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”  Brainy beauties with a penchant for pink-forward fashion, Elle and Barbie are much-loved exemplars of self-empowerment.

Elle Woods, the Delta Nu sorority girl from Los Angeles who found her future at Harvard Law School, gets another turn in the spotlight as Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables opens its production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”  The show previews at the Miracle Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 31, and Thursday, Feb. 1, then opens Friday, Feb. 2, for a run through Sunday, Feb. 25.

“Legally Blonde: The Musical” is the biggest show of the 2023-2024 Actors’ Playhouse season, with a $400,000 budget, a cast of 21, two swing performers and  a pair of pooches (a chihuahua to play Elle’s dog Bruiser, a bulldog as her friend Paulette’s dog Rufus).  All told, artistic director David Arisco estimates more than 40 people are working on the show, onstage and off.

Stephen Christopher Anthony and Becca Andrews with director David Arisco during a rehearsal for “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” (Photo courtesy of Gregory F Reed, MFA)

Both the “Barbie” movie and “Legally Blonde” are about “girl power, pink power, women stepping up for themselves and coming together,” says Arisco. “Elle Woods is a great character. She perseveres, fights, works hard and makes better people out of the people around her.”

Though he was familiar with the “Legally Blonde” movies, he had never seen a production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” when he chose it as the season centerpiece.  And he has become a fan.

“I think the musical does everything better, in such a sincere, honest, heartfelt way,” he says.  “This is entertainment with a capital E.”

To play Elle, Arisco cast Becca Andrews, who starred in the production by Fort Lauderdale’s Slow Burn Theatre at the Broward Center in 2018.  This will be Andrews’ sixth time playing Elle, and Arisco has found her to be “more than willing to offer up a moment or a bit she thought was missed, but also more than willing to go different ways.”

Andrews, who also sings in a country band called the Honky Tonk Chicks, loves playing Elle Woods in a show she describes as “a balance of comedy and heart.”  As with the “Barbie” movie, the musical “explores the complexity of being a woman in general, and what the world expects of us.  They want us to be ambitious and a go-getter, but not too much.”

Heather Jane Rolff as Paulette and Becca Andrews  as Elle Woods with Tony as Rufus the bulldog in “Legally Blonde” at Actors’ Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Gregory F Reed)

While her actor husband Elliott Litherland is appearing in an Indiana production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (the couple’s rescue dog Richie is with him), Andrews is loving playing what she considers a dream role but with new costars.

“Based on the way other people are playing their roles, what they’re giving me, it can change my line,” she says, adding of the show, “I think the story of this passionate, ambitious, amazing woman is told better through song.”

In truth, Andrews has appeared before with one of her fellow actors: Cha Cha, the chihuahua who plays Bruiser.  The dog made her theater debut opposite Andrews in a previous “Legally Blonde” production, and their reunion has been impressive.

Heather Jane Rolff as Paulette, Tony as Rufus, and Diego Klock-Pérez as Kyle the UPS guy meet up in “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” (Photo courtesy of Gregory F Reed, MFA)

“I have a very special place in my heart for Cha Cha. She was rescued from a hoarding situation,” says Andrews.  “The first time we did the blocking for this production, she got it right away, and she also looked up at me on the right line.”

Cha Cha and Tony, who plays Rufus, have canine understudies, and are both rescues who were adopted and trained by William Berloni. Once an aspiring actor, Berloni got his start in 1976 when lyricist Martin Charnin asked the 19-year-old to find and train a dog to play Sandy in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Annie.” A 2011 Tony Honoree for Excellence in Theatre, Berloni explains in a Zoom interview how he makes his animal performers the best in the biz.

“People ask if I can train any dog, and my answer is no.  You have to find dogs who are friendly, who can deal with stress and are food-motivated,” he says of the rescue animals, who live with Berloni and his wife. “It’s important to bond the dogs emotionally to the actors they’re working with, to teach the actors to give commands and foster a temporary relationship with the animals.  The dogs have to want to go onstage.”

Heather Jane Rolff as Paulette gives Tony as Rufus a squeeze in “Legally Blonde” at Actors’ Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Gregory F Reed)

Only the traveling trainer and the actors who interact onstage with Bruiser and Rufus are allowed to touch the dogs – or even look them in the eyes.  When they’re brought in for daily rehearsals, the other actors turn away.

Two of the artists involved in the new “Legally Blonde” are having a reunion/homecoming of sorts.  Stephen Christopher Anthony, who plays Elle’s mentor and future beau Emmett Forrest, and Sarah Crane, the show’s associate director and choreographer, met when they were Miami kids training with the Musical Miracles program at Actors’ Playhouse.

Sarah Crane, left, is the choreographer and associate director of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” at Actors’ Playhouse. At right, William Berloni is the famed trainer of the dogs who appear onstage. (Photos courtesy of Michael Kushner Photography and Jenna Berloni)

“I’ve known Stephen since I was 10. He’s a star now,” says Crane. “On the first day of rehearsals, we walked through the theater’s front door together, and he said, ‘I’m so happy to be back!’”

Also an actor, Crane toured nationally in “Mean Girls” and “The Prom.” She has auditioned for different productions of “Legally Blonde,” but directors always see her as a Serena (the fiancé of Elle’s college boyfriend) or Brooke (the fitness queen accused of murder). Crane already knew Andrews because she has choreographed for the Honky Tonk Chicks and believes Andrews is just right for Elle: “We had to find someone who is really smart, and Becca is that.”

Her approach to the show’s choreography, she says, is to “keep it energetic, make it new and interesting,  but also honor why it was so successful.”

So get ready to “Bend and Snap.”

Stephen Christopher Anthony as Emmett and Becca Andrews as Elle take on the legal system in “Legally Blonde: The Musical” at Actors’ Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Gregory F Reed, MFA)

Anthony went to high school at Miami’s New World School of the Arts after starting his theater career at Actors’ Playhouse when he was 11. Crane is right: He is a star now, having played the title role in “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway and on tour, as well as the lead role of Frank Abagnale Jr. in the tour of “Catch Me If You Can.”

(Side note: Stephen Christopher Anthony is his stage name, the “Christopher” in memory of his late uncle because there’s already a Stephen Anthony, a Carbonell Award winner who lives in South Florida, in the Actors’ Equity union.)

Anthony calls Andrews “a superstar – so fun, so charming, magnetic, playful and charismatic. My character is drawn to Elle, who reminds me that it’s OK to play…We lift each other up.”

He also agrees that the comparisons between Barbie and Elle Woods are on-the-nose apt.

“With Barbie, there’s an assumption that every woman should fit into a box,” he says.  “This show does a very delicate job of saying you can look how you want and be what you want. It unpacks our perceptions.  You can be a feminine person and the smartest person in the room.”

WHAT: “Legally Blonde: The Musical” by Nell Benjamin, Laurence O’Keefe and Heather Hach

WHERE: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

WHEN: Previews 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31, and Thursday, Feb. 1; opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb.  2; regular performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3; Wednesday, Feb. 7, and Saturday, Feb. 10), through Feb. 25

COST: $40, $55, $65, $75, $85, $250 opening night tickets include open bar and reception. Seniors 65 and over get 10 percent off weekdays only, students with valid student ID pay $15 for a rush ticket available 15 minutes before a weekday performance

INFORMATION: 305-444-9293 or actorsplayhouse.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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