Stage preview: CLO thinks pink with 'Legally Blonde'

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Pittsburgh CLO invites you to a "big pink cotton candy party," as Sarrah Strimel describes "Legally Blonde the Musical," the show that reminds us that looks can be deceiving, even if you happen to be beautiful and bubbly like title blonde Elle Woods.

The first national tour of "Legally Blonde" came to Pittsburgh courtesy of CLO in 2009 and now the company is producing the show for the first time, with one of the touring stars, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, as Elle. The actress is a newcomer to Pittsburgh, while the show is a homecoming for Ms. Strimel, who plays Brooke, a fitness instructor accused in the murder of her much older husband.

'Legally Blonde the Musical'

Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Friday through June 22. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (2 p.m. only June 22).

Tickets: $10-$65.75; or 412-456-6666.

Ms. Monteleone, a finalist on NBC's "GREASE: You're the One That I Want" and Broadway's "Hands on a Hard Body," continues a journey that goes back to falling hard for the 2001 film that starred Reese Witherspoon. She also saw the Broadway version by Heather Hach, with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. "I loved the writing of this show, and I am a gal like Elle Woods; she matches my personality. Her arc from the very beginning, she never loses who she is, but she grows. She never had to put down the pink to succeed."

Besides the fun and the fluff that both women can't get enough of, "Legally Blonde" has a not-so-subtle message that both ladies relate to as actresses. "There's a story about judging people by their covers. I connect very strongly to it because that's my business. I get judged by how I sing, how I look. It teaches that lesson, someone may look a certain way but that's not necessarily who they are," Ms. Strimel said.

Wealthy and pretty isn't a bad way to go through life, of course, unless the label stands in the way of your dreams. Elle's dream at first is to impress the man who dumped her by following him to Harvard Law School, and nothing will stand in her way nor separate her from her beloved pooch (played by Chico the chihuahua of the Broadway production). Her dreams change when she clicks in class and in court, and with a new guy. That would be Emmett, portrayed by Broadway and CLO veteran Matthew Scott. Lara Hayhurst, Ms. Strimel's fellow North Allegheny alum and an Elle herself for Pittsburgh Musical Theater, plays sorority sister Margot.

The story of girl power also is matter-of-fact about women sticking together, something that spills over to behind the scenes. It's necessary, too, when putting on a CLO show with such a quick turnaround time. That bonding makes for one of Ms. Monteleone's favorite moments, when Elle's sorority sisters appear to her as a Greek chorus to tell her to stay "Positive."

"I love it; I'm having a great time, but I haven't been able to see much of Pittsburgh besides CVS and Starbucks," said Ms. Monteleone, who as Elle is in almost every scene.

For Ms. Strimel, the experience has been about making new friends such as her co-star and reconnecting with her hometown, where she was on the stage from an early age. She won both the Junior Miss Pittsburgh and Young Miss Pennsylvania pageants, tap-dancing in the talent portion; performed with Pittsburgh Musical Theater; and earned her Equity card in the ensemble of CLO. Also, she was a Gene Kelly Award winner as a North Allegheny High senior, and in May she served as a presenter for the Kellys.

"Oh my gosh, I am over the moon," she said of being home and sounding very much like a member of the Elle Woods sisterhood. "It was so special to be honored by the institution that started my career, so it was kind of amazing. I didn't realize [that] since I actually performed with the PCLO it's been about 12 years, a summer season while I was in college [at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati]."

The actress is enjoying life in the suburbs when she's not rehearsing, taking spins in her mom's Cadillac and chilling by the pool at Treesdale Country Club. Earlier this week, she tweeted, "I'm currently rehearsing the role of a workout instructor and just had apple pie for bfast. Before yoga. Killing the game or my 6 pack?"

In New York City, she lives in a tiny Manhattan studio apartment.

"People ask me what I would do if I would win the lottery. I say that I would buy a couch and they say, 'What, you can't afford a couch?' I would buy an apartment that could fit a couch."

There have been lean and mean times, like having to turn down auditions while working on Broadway's "Big Fish," which closed sooner than expected. "Funny Girl" never made it to Broadway, and she was involved in the "Broadway 4D" project when the plug was pulled.

That's the lot of a theater actor, but Ms. Strimel wasn't complaining about the lulls. She's been on Broadway in "Young Frankenstein," "The Producers" and "Catch Me If You Can" and is gearing up for her sixth New York show -- she couldn't give a name because the contract isn't signed.

She marvels at the ensemble members in the "Legally Blonde" cast, even though she was once among them. Her role takes place mostly in the second act, so she has time to observe their hard work.

"They are killing themselves doing it all summer long; I'm sort of in awe of them," she said. "And watching Kathleen, she's in almost every scene, and I have all of Act 1 to hang out. But when I am called, it's like being shot out of a cannon."

Ms. Strimel is expecting a lot of support in the audience, including her longtime vocal coach, Amy Schier-Lindsey, and is trying to keep up with her mother's requests for tickets. For more about the audience and how it experiences "Legally Blonde," she passed the baton to her new friend and CLO's Elle.

"Usually, it's young girls who love all the pink and the dog and the story," Ms. Monteleone said. "But then they bring boyfriends and husbands and brothers who are shocked they love it, too. It's a huge comment on society, about how people are judged. The comment I always hear from men is, 'I didn't know how smart it was, and I didn't know I would laugh so hard.' "

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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