For Kalamazoo Gazette, 10-10-10
Paw Paw native stays on his toes
‘Legally Blonde’ roadshow shines through
Elle Woods, the heroine of “Legally Blonde” — the 2001 movie that starred Reese Witherspoon and the Broadway musical that stops by Miller Auditorium Oct. 14-15 — believes in following her heart. And so does Paw Paw native Jerry Mitchell, the director and choreographer of the musical, both for the New York City production and for the touring show.
At Paw Paw High School, Mitchell played football and lettered in the high jump. He was class president and in the marching band. He took tap lessons on the side.
And when in 1977 at the West Main Mall he ran into some dancers from a “West Side Story” touring company who told him one of their colleagues was injured, Mitchell dashed over to Miller Auditorium to audition for the spot. He got the gig and spent much of his senior year on tour.
He returned 12 weeks before the end of school just in time to complete his coursework and graduate.
He hasn’t stopped dashing since.
Mitchell went on to perform on Broadway as a dancer and choreographer in a number of hit shows. He won a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circles Award for choreography in 2005 for “La Cage aux Folles.”
With “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” he took his first shot as director, too, garnering 2007 Drama Desk nominations for choreography and for director of a musical.
What was it about the comic tale of a Harvard Law School wannabe chasing after her ex-boyfriend that made Mitchell want to direct?
“Elle Woods is a much bigger-than-life character, a heroine to sing and dance,” in the vein of Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly” and Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray,” he says during a telephone interview.
In translating the movie into a stage musical, Mitchell and the show’s other creators needed to use song and dance to tell the story. In the movie, for example, Elle applies to Harvard with a humorous video-taped essay, spouting irrelevant legal jargon throughout.
In the musical, Elle flies in her school’s marching band and cheer leading squad on Jet Blue to perform a major production number to wow the law school board.
“It’s a very youthful story,” Mitchell says. “The music is very young, very now. The characters are young, so these kids have that youthful energy.”
He adds the four female leads on the tour “have spectacular voices.”
Taking a show on tour, he notes, has its own considerations: “You have 13 hours to load in and 13 hours to load out. One and a half days to drive to the next town. It’s kind of like taking a circus on the road.”
So while the theater experience at Miller will be slightly streamlined from the Great White Way production, “we keep the look of the Broadway show,” Mitchell says. “The (original) piece still shines through.”
Jerry Mitchell, on stage and off
As a professional dancer, Jerry Mitchell performed on Broadway in “The Will Rogers Follies” and revivals of “On Your Toes” and “Brigadoon.” He worked as associate choreographer — or “sorcerer’s apprentice,” he calls it — for the legendary Jerome Robbins (choreographer of “West Side Story,” coincidentally) on “Jerome Robbins’s Broadway.”
He choreographed “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “The Full Monty” and “Hairspray” and revivals of “La Cage aux Folles” and “Gypsy,” as well as on movies and TV shows.
Along with an armful of Tony Award and other dance nominations, he won a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circles Award for “La Cage aux Folles” in 2005.
For many years he’s directed the annual “Broadway Bares” charity benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, featuring some 250 dancers and celebrities such as Kristin Chenoweth and Vanessa Williams. He also was named one of the Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2003.
What’s next for the energetic Mitchell? He’s preparing or maintaining seven different productions — “Once you have something on Broadway and it’s a success, you have a responsibility to maintain that show,” he contends.
Among those projects is a musical version of the 2002 movie, “Catch Me If You Can,” now in workshop, and a Las Vegas stage show called “Peep Show,” set for a February 2011 opening.
And he manages to return to Paw Paw “as often as I can,” he says. “Everyone’s still there.”
“Legally Blonde: The Musical” runs Thursday-Friday, Oct. 14-15, at Miller Auditorium as part of its Broadway in West Michigan series, www.millerauditorium.com, 269-387-2300, 800-228-9858