Being Elle

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David Minton/DRC
Kristi Smith plays Elle Woods in Denton Community Theatre’s “Legally Blonde.” Smith earned her master’s degree in theater at Texas Woman’s University and has studied dance since age 4.
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Actress takes on iconic role in riches to rags to real-life story

Kristi Smith figured she’d get cast in the chorus of Denton Community Theatre’s Legally Blonde.

“It’s funny, because I am a chorus girl at heart. Always have been,” Smith said. “And that was my niche, because that’s how I got a lot of work. And I was good at it, and I liked it, and being in the chorus means you get to be in every number and a lots of times you get to play multiple characters.”

She walked into auditions with her sights set a little higher than the chorus. But not much.

“So I came in auditioning, there was one role I wanted, and that was Paulette,” Smith said. “If you look at my audition sheet, it says: Paulette or chorus. It was either Paulette or chorus,” said Smith, 28, a teller at a Dallas-Fort Worth Chase Bank. “I almost came to auditions decked [out] as Paulette. I almost went with blue eyeshadow, bouffant. I mean, I wanted that role so bad.”

“Of course I see Suzanne as Paulette and she’s flawless. Just flawless. I’m like, ‘No wonder! I didn’t stand a chance!’” Smith said.

Suzanne Lewis, a familiar face to Denton Community Theatre audiences, plays the role of a nail technician with a heart of gold. Legally Blonde is based on the 2001 blockbuster film starring Reese Witherspoon. Elle Woods is a Zeta Nu sister with Malibu Barbie good looks and eyes for only one fraternity dreamboat: Warner.

Elle is all set to start picking china patterns for her nuptials — which she thinks are a sure thing — when Warner dumps her.

He insists he can’t marry Elle. If he wants to be a senator by the time he’s 30, he needs “less of a Marilyn, more of a Jackie.”

Elle is, ahem, too blonde and too voluptuous to be a suitable mate for a career politician.

Stunned and beyond heartbroken, Elle decides to follow Warner to Harvard Law School. Maybe a makeunder (from bombshell to attorney-chic) will show the one who got away that she might be a bubbly blonde, but she can be serious.

Laurence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin and Heather Hach adapted the film into a popular musical, which was chronicled by MTV after its 2007 Broadway debut on Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods.

The musical is faithful to the film, with a few smart twists and updates.

Smith said she didn’t exactly enter a sorority girl freak-out when director Clay White offered her the title role. She’d worked with White and choreographer Jacqueline Butt in Denton Community Theatre’s Gypsy, and trusted the show’s leadership.

Smith wasn’t so sure she could handle the ever-bubbly Elle.

“I was terrified out of my pants,” Smith said. “The first thing I said to Clay when he offered me the role was, ‘Are you sure?’ I was scared. Two days later I sat down and thought about it and I realized the best thing I could do was to play her as honest as I could.”

Elle Woods was perhaps the best trick Hollywood could play on audiences that prefer being entertained to being challenged. In a lot of romantic comedies — and teen comedies — the story begins with a plucky woman with a messy life. As she’s marched toward the altar — or the arms of a hunky (or dorky) man — she is most often transformed into a gorgeous woman whose world has narrowed to the movie trifecta: home, hubby and family.

Legally Blond upends that familiar plot. In Act One, Scene One, Elle has the flaxen hair, the carefully maintained figure and the upwardly mobile man. In the end, she’s got a purpose that she won’t forfeit for love.

“Oftentimes in theater, especially with a young ingenue role, they can be turned into a flippant character, and I didn’t want that for her because that’s not how she is,” Smith said. “And you root for Elle, too. And if she is structured and played the right way, then you root for her, because she really is a girl who 100 percent followed her heart. Did everything the right way, had everything fall apart in front of her face, twice. And still, she picked it back up and said: ‘OK. Plan C.’ She’s very much a girl that if A doesn’t work, you have all the way to Z to figure it out.”

Smith said she considers herself a triple threat — a performer who can act, sing and dance. Smith started studying dance at age 4. She studied tap, jazz and ballet. In middle school, she studied lyrical, modern and hip-hop. By the time she started Flower Mound High School, Smith was dancing 30 hours a week outside of the Rosettes drill team. She began studying theater in college, at the urging of her best friend. She earned a master’s degree in theater at Texas Woman’s University. She’s the soul artsy member of a family she describes as being “business oriented.”

“No one in my family is musical or anything. I’m talking they didn’t even so much as pick up a paint brush,” she said.

The dancing and acting come more readily to Smith than the vocals.

White said Smith has a huge amount of work to do.

“She has to do a lot of singing,” White said, in an interview before the musical opened. “A lot of belting.”

Smith said when it comes to her triple threat skills, singing isn’t her strength. She can handle music, and can decipher some of the sheet music. But she can’t sight read, and she didn’t start rehearsals feeling confident about the singing.

“When you are surrounded by incredible singers, that makes it all that much more intimidating,” she said. “It was so nice, because I’ve played the lead in a musical before where the music director wrote me off because I’m not a musical person. And if it was right, it was right, and if it wasn’t, then, well I can’t fix you in four weeks.”

She said musical director Rebecca Lowry was “a godsend.”

“I think I’ve had a real voice lesson twice in my life,” Smith said. “Rebecca never lost her patience with me. And you know, I’d ask her to play this one part over and over and over again. She would play it over and over and over again. She always made me feel comfortable. The directing staff made it as easy as it could.”

In spite of her worries about singing up to the level of her peers, Smith sells the role with zest. And word of mouth has been good; the remainder of the run is sold out, though the box office does have a waiting list of people who will swoop in to purchase seats left empty by no-shows. The role is demanding. Smith is on stage throughout the musical, and by the third song, “What You Want,” the audience has seen her in four different costumes. As for the plush pink seven-inch pumps? Smith dances in them with skill.

Smith said she respects the blonde she’s portraying.

“To me, Elle never pretends to be something she’s not,” Smith said. “And for her, growing up with two very loving parents in a very affluent neighborhood, in a very comfortable lifestyle was not a bad thing. It did not make her spoiled. It did not make her stuck up. It made her a very, very lucky girl. And she was like everybody else around her. Her life doesn’t start until her heart is broken. And she’s just funny.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Follow her on Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.


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