This past weekend MUSKET, the University’s student-run musical theatre organization, presented “Legally Blonde,” directed by School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior BFA directing candidate Bruna d’Avila and produced by a team of all female producers.
The musical has some serious undertones, which in the “Me Too” era takes on a different face. d’Avila set out to reinvent what we think of when we think “Elle Woods” and her connection to modern, third wave feminism. As I watched the musical play out on that glorious Power Center stage, no longer was Elle a breezy, materialistic blonde on the hunt for a man. Instead, in MUSKET’s world, Elle is a fierce feminist in a universe that pushes back against her integrity, proving that surface level judgements don’t aggregate in truth.
d’Avila’s direction was thoughtful and poignant, with an astute lens on the political implications of the text and how it can stretch and resonate with audiences today. She focused not only on aesthetic, but substance, giving audiences spoonfuls of what they remember from the film along with added layers of depth. The happy-go-lucky dialogue and impressive ensemble dance numbers choreographed by SMTD junior Maya Alwan read as nothing short of a party you just can’t help but want to join and married nicely with a strong consideration on the true themes of the story. d’Avila dug into the text, finding the exceptional moments to highlight amidst the zeal and the sequins.
Mikaela Secada, SMTD sophomore BFA musical theatre candidate, who took the stage by storm as Elle Woods, is nothing short of a star. She vocally carried the show — her clear, strong belt filled the Power Center, which is not an easily accomplished feat. She proved herself a triple threat, mastering Alwan’s choreography in three inch heels, riffing her way through act one finale “So Much Better” and bringing a new light to Elle Woods. She managed to render Elle as something more than the charming ingenue we’re quick to see her as. Secada’s Elle was as a passionate young woman with motivated choices, nuanced thoughtfulness, a selfless energy and peppy resilience — even when the world wants her to fail. Secada took the stereotypes Elle could be reduced to and subverted them.
Secada’s Elle Woods isn’t the Elle we picture in our head — and that’s where the magic comes from. As a Cuban-American woman, the possibility to play Elle Woods was never on her radar. It has only recently become more common to see members of the Latinx and minority communities playing traditionally white roles. It takes directors like d’Avila and young theatre makers like Secada to blaze a trail for more inclusive casting going forward.
When asking d’Avila, in an interview about the casting choice, she said, “My Elle Woods is Latina. In discussions with her about how we felt about that choice, Mikaela Secada told me, ‘I just never thought I could be Elle Woods, it is an amazing role, but I never considered it one of my dream roles because I didn’t look like her.’ It’s actors like Mikaela Secada who expand young performer of color’s view of what they can do on stage.”
Along with the nontraditional casting, which comments on the trajectory theatre is on toward a more inclusive reality, d’Avila made choices to open the piece to a larger socio-political dimension as well. Professor Callahan, the brusque, misogynistic law professor played by SMTD sophomore Henry Pederson, another strong cast standout, was dressed in a navy blue suit and a red tie, appearing eerily similar to a certain current U.S. president, as he belittled and picked on Elle to the point of sexual assault in the climax of the musical.
The backbone of the excellence was the imaginative, multi-functional set. Rendered by SMTD Bachelor Theatre Art senior Emma Somers, it consisted of moving walls to exhibit multiple locations. This innovative set design allowed for seamless transitions between scenes.
d’Avila truly outdid herself with MUSKET’s “Legally Blonde”, proving that she is ready for a larger career in pushing and illuminating minority stories on stage. MUSKET’s production of “Legally Blonde” was a sugar rush with no cavity, a believe in yourself comedy with a feminist protagonist and surprisingly weighty undertones. It is a perfectly pink confectionary experience which leaves you winded, thoughtful, pleasantly surprised and dancing straight out of the theatre.