Emma Degerstedt was done playing Elle Woods.
“I told my agent, ‘Unless Laura Bell Bundy calls, I want to take a break from playing Elle.’” says Degerstedt, a former Nickelodeon star who had previously played Elle Woods in six productions of “Legally Blonde — The Musical.”
Not long after, Laura Bell Bundy did call, and now, Degerstedt is seated next to her eating lunch halfway through the grueling three-week rehearsal of The Lexington Theater Company’s production of “Legally Blonde.”
Degerstedt is a veteran actress and her star is still on the rise, and despite playing the role in many productions, she is discovering new things about Elle and her journey, thanks to notes and insights by Bundy, the Lexington native who originated the role on Broadway and co-directs this show with artistic director Lyndy Franklin Smith.
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“I love that she is not saying, ‘This is how I did it’ — she is not doing that at all,” Degerstedt says.
Says Bundy: “As I was re-approaching this material, there were things that were dawning on me about Elle’s journey — emotionally and energetically — that drives her through the show. There are things I’m realizing just from having time and breath away from it and looking at it from the other side of the table.”
One of those key insights? That despite a pink, glittery veneer and glow of bubbly happiness, Elle is a serious person.
“My favorite thing that Laura has taught me is that Elle is always serious,” Degerstedt says. “The whole thing with the show is, Elle’s not serious and she becomes serious, and Laura’s like, ‘No, no, she’s serious from the beginning. She’s a serious person. What she is serious about changes.’
I love that she is not saying ‘This is how I did it’ — she is not doing that at all.
Bundy says she tries to find the balance between encouraging Degerstedt to make her own discoveries and giving her hard-earned advice gleaned from her years of experience with the character.
“It’s a real fine line. You want an actress to be able to find it on their own in the natural journey. But it is also very tricky and, I’ll admit, I also want her to have the benefit of having all the wisdom that I have about the character.”
“I’ve tried it so many ways, and I know the joke doesn’t work like this; I know the audience reacts best this way: Do I let her find it in five performances, or do I give her the key to the test?” Bundy says. “The biggest thing is us talking about her emotional journey and her getting there in an authentic and truthful way.”
This kind of back-and-forth about character development is one of the unique and attractive aspects of working with The Lexington Theatre Company for up-and-coming actors, but it’s also business as usual for the company that takes its motto, “Today’s Broadway stars and tomorrow’s Broadway hopefuls” as seriously as Elle Woods takes the fact that she is a Gemini with a double-Capricorn moon.
It’s an exchange that happens from the lead roles to the ensemble and that embodies the company’s commitment to education that gives rising performers a leg up on their creative journey.
Take Casey Wenger-Shulman, who plays Serena. A recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Wenger-Shulman performed in the ensemble during the company’s inaugural production of “42nd Street” as a sophomore and now is playinga prominent role under the tutelage of Brooke Engen, the show’s choreographer, who played the character Serena in the original Broadway show.
I lived in New York City my whole life, and I had to come to Lexington, Ky., to get to work with this caliber of people.
She says her experience as a student and now her experience as a recent grad is an opportunity she never would have gotten in New York, her hometown.
“You’re learning far more than just the original choreography,” Wenger-Shulman says about working with The Lexington Theatre Company.
“For instance, we had a talk with all of the original cast members yesterday during our lunch break, and they were able to tell us which songs weren’t in the show at first, why changes were made, which lines came directly from Laura Bell herself — that is something that you just don’t usually get,” she says. “I lived in New York City my whole life, and I had to come to Lexington, Ky., to get to work with this caliber of people.”
The passing of the baton from veterans to hopefuls benefits local actors, including Joseph Alan Wrightson, a recent UK graduate who plans to teach drama in middle school. Wrightson plays Elle’s dad in the show, and who does he have to help guide him? Kevin Pariseau, who played Elle’s dad in the original Broadway production.
“At first I felt a lot of pressure,” says Wrightson, who also is understudying Pariseau’s role as Professor Callahan, but any intimidation he might have felt quickly melted away.
“He’s just been so kind and willing to listen to what I’ve come up with about the character,” Wrightson says. “There’s no pressure to do what the original cast did. It’s been about finding your own way.”