Legally Blonde

From MTV to Broadway to Birmingham, Bailey Hanks is now Legally Blonde at Red Mountain Theatre Company

by Tom Wofford

Bailey Hanks

Any performer who lands a role in a Broadway show undoubtedly endures a rigorous audition process. Probably no one has undergone as intriguing, and as public, a tryout as Bailey Hanks.

Hanks took over the lead in Broadway’s Legally Blonde: The Musical from Laura Bell Bundy, who originated the role, in an unorthodox way, an unprecedented one, in fact.

Hanks made it to Broadway by winning a television reality show, Legally Blonde: The Musical — The Search for Elle Woods, which ran for nine episodes on MTV during the summer of 2008.

This month, Hanks reprises the role of perky, pink Elle Woods alongside some of Birmingham’s best in the Red Mountain Theatre Company production of Legally Blonde: the Musical, opening July 12 at the Virginia Samford Theatre and running through August 5.

“It’s a dream role,” Hanks says of near-icon Elle, and the South Carolina native’s journey with the role certainly has a dream-come-true quality to it.

Hanks was in the process of transferring to Nashville’s Belmont University when she went through three rounds of auditions for The Search of Elle Woods in February 2008. She was one of only two girls from talent-rich Nashville to advance to the New York tryout, but there were plenty more waiting in the Big Apple.

“There were about 500 girls there for the first show,” Hanks says. “It was pretty amazing.” Eliminations were fast and furious. “They cut it to 15 contestants the first day,” Hanks says, “and by the end of the episode there were only 10 of us.”

The next seven episodes were shot in less than five weeks, with the contestants undergoing singing, acting and dancing tutorials and competing with songs from the show, all as they were eliminated one by one. The finale put Hanks and runner-up Autumn Hurlbert live on stage of the Palace Theatre with the Legally Blonde orchestra. In a finely tuned multi-media cross-promotion, Search for Elle Woods announced Hanks its winner on July 21, and Hanks took over as Elle on Broadway only two days later.

The roots of the musical are, of course, in the hit Reese Witherspoon film franchise. “It was absolutely my favorite,” Hanks exclaims. “I have a worn-out VHS copy of it.”

“It’s a role I was born to play,” the 24-year-old Hanks says with the same winsomeness that makes her character so winning. In addition to her Broadway run, this production will be the second time Hanks has played Elle in a regional theatre.

“I’m constantly getting type-cast, but Elle is a character I’m okay with being typecast as,” Hanks says. “I respect Elle. She’s an awesome gal.”

Director Robin Lewis thinks Hanks has a lot in common with Elle. “She’s beautiful and smart and funny,” he says.

It seems as though more than six years have passed since the “summer stock” company called Summerfest renamed itself Red Mountain Theatre Company and began putting on shows during the other nine months of the year. Founded in 1979, Summerfest brought professionals from across the country to Birmingham to stage big-name musicals with the help of talented locals. Long before the name Summerfest went away, the organization had expanded far beyond summer, first to the holiday season, then basically to anytime.

It’s a sign of the completed metamorphosis that as RMTC’s 2011-12 closes with Legally Blonde in August, its 2012-13 season opens in September with The Color Purple.

Keith Cromwell has overseen the group’s impressive expansion and its successful rebranding. Cromwell came to Summerfest in 2002 to direct a production of Grease and returned the next year as executive director. While Cromwell has continued to direct and choreograph on occasion, most of his efforts went into expanding the capacity and reputation of the organization. He pursued high-profile collaborations with the Alabama Symphony and Alabama Ballet, extended the length of the season and number of productions, and most important, Cromwell said, pursued youth theatre programs.

In June, Hanks and Legally Blonde director Robin Lewis taught a three-week workshop for more than 400 schoolchildren ages 7 to 18.

“It’s great watching these kids going at it,” Cromwell said. “This work the kids do here helps them find the best in themselves and find how to put it into words and actions. It gives them great skills that cross over into every area of their lives.”

It also gives youngsters with aspirations for a career in professional theatre hands-on instruction from working professionals. The experience ends with the workshop showcase, where the participants show off their new skills to a packed house. Some will even be lucky enough to find themselves appearing in Legally Blonde, working in a professional production.

Like most RMTC productions, Legally Blonde: The Musical is cast with a mix of Equity actors (like Hanks and Dan Kohler, who plays Emmett Forrest) and local non-union professionals like Kristi Tingle Higginbotham (Paulette), Kyle Holman (Professor Callahan) and Anna Grace Barlow (Margo). “It’s kind of a hybrid show with the youth program, in a way,” Cromwell said. “It’s a perfect marriage, because the oldest kids in the program can be cast in age-appropriate roles.”

“It’s great having this mix of locals and professionals,” Lewis said. “It’s a great way for people to learn a lot about how the system works.”

But at the end of the day, the play’s the thing, and Lewis thinks Birmingham audiences will love the RMTC production

Lewis, who is about to create a new musical theatre BFA program at the Princeton campus of Rider University, thinks the show is excellent Birmingham family fare.

“All you have to do is look at the values in the show,” he said. “Work hard, keep a good attitude, follow your passion, and you can succeed and be happy with who you are. How do you not love that?

Legally Blonde Call-back Line-up

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