(Photo/SFAC/Alex Hamm)

Sitka’s Musical Theatre Camp is at the height of production, debuting the high-energy rock-belt musical Legally Blonde this weekend – based on the hit 2001 film. While there’s fun to be had, it’s not just pink dresses and valley girl giggles. There’s a deeper message at the core of this girl-centered musical about a sorority sister taking on Harvard Law.

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This is the biggest company ever at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, with 52 performers on stage. The musical theatre program builds a full-length show from the ground up in two weeks. And in its history, this is the most modern musical they’ve performed and the cast is mostly female. One of those young women is Bronwyn Embree. She’s the understudy for the main character, Elle Woods, and also plays the store manager alongside a clerk named Courtney

“There’s this clerk comes in and tries to deceive Elle, and gives her this dress. And it’s a really old dress. She tells this big fat lie that it’s super up to date and fashionable,” says Embree. “But Elle doesn’t fall for it.”

If you’ve seen the film, you might remember the moment. “Is that low viscosity rayon?” Woods asks the clerk. “With a half loop top-stitching on the hem?” When the clerk confirms it, Woods calls her bluff. “You can’t make low viscosity rayon with a half-loop top stitching on the hem,” she says. “It would snag the fabric.” In the film, the exchange ends there, but the musical takes it one step further with the addition of Embree’s character. 

“And I bring her this beautiful dress and I say one of the most popular lines from the show, that has become many a youtube video,” Embree says. “Courtney take your break.”

It’s the first time the audience sees there’s more to Elle Woods than meets the eye. The film has achieved something  between mainstream classic and cult status. Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon in the film and then by Laura Bell Bundy in the original broadway production, is a blonde bombshell from Beverly Hills who decides to follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in the hopes of winning him back. She’s constantly underestimated- And that’s what the story is all about according to director WT McRae – subverting expectations and challenging preconceived notions of womanhood.

“You expect it not to be serious,” McRae says. “We underestimate Elle Woods because of pervasive cultural ideas about what being a woman is, what being a man is, what being serious looks like. If you can be a pink-clad Valley Girl who loves fashion and still be a serious, shrewd lawyer.”

McRae has been with the Sitka Fine Arts Camp for 12 years, and directed all seven of their musical theater productions. He says that while “Legally Blonde” is full of high energy material, the student performers, many of whom plan to pursue musical theater at a professional level, are up to the challenge.

“This kid is playing somebody from Harvard and then running off stage, and changing clothes, moving a set piece. The tracks are busy, it is two hours of work for everyone at a high output,” McRae says.

(Photo/SFAC/Alex Hamm)

Summer Rae Kuhns from Anchorage plays Elle Woods’ confidant Paulette, a nail technician who meets the young law student at an emotional low. Woods shows up at the salon, planning to dye her hair brown in order to be taken seriously.

“Paulette convinces her that she doesn’t have to change herself,” Kuhns says. “Throughout the story Paulette has her own transformation where she comes to the realization that she’s also super awesome. She doesn’t really need to dim her shine in order to make other people happy.”

Kuhns says the show delivers an important message to young people.

“This show has a lot of very adult topics,” Kuhns says. “Women’s place in the workplace, sexuality, things like that. I hope they realize that people our age can handle these topics and we deserve to have a voice in this type of conversation.”

Including what McRae calls a “prescient” moment at the climax of the show, when Woods encounters workplace harassment.

“There’s a very hard moment when Elle Woods faces her mentor and has the keys to her legal career and he tries to kiss her,” McRae says. “It is what we’re seeing in the Me Too movement. And we’re hearing it again and again. This is what happens to women who are trying to build careers that they deserve.”

But McRae and the performers say that, while the show’s deeper message will hopefully resonate with the audience, there’s still plenty of fun to be had.

“I believe that our lives are hard enough,” McRae says. “The musical was built to take you away for a couple of hours to some other place where you can sing and dance and feel great, and it’s going to do that.”

So Courtney, take your break. Maybe go see a show while you’re at it.

“Legally Blonde: The Musical” premieres at the Sitka Performing Arts Center this Friday at 7 p.m. with performances on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.