The opening of "Legally Blonde: The Musical" Thursday night at Linn-Benton Community College's Russell Tripp Performance Center will be the biggest production ever presented by South Albany High School Theater Arts students.

And the best, says Benjamin Sell, director of theater arts at South Albany High School.

"We always say every show should be the best show we've done. I sincerely believe this will be," Sell said.

The ambitious musical also marks the start of a partnership between South Albany and LBCC, a partnership forged by the friendship between Sell and Michael Winder, event and production coordinator at LBCC. The two have collaborated in the past on several improv shows for Sell's students, both at South Albany and LBCC.

Sell contacted Winder for help with "Legally Blonde" because of the success of last year's musical at South Albany was so successful. "Back to the 80's: The Totally Awesome Musical" sold out five performances, and nearly a sixth.

"Having to actually turn people away at the door was heartbreaking," Sell said.

The production was also one of many that were too big for the school's stage.

"Our shows always seem to spill out into the audience. When you've got 40 kids on a 19-foot stage, it's a little rough," Sell said.

The musical's success and space issues convinced Sell that the theater arts program had outgrown the 170-seat capacity of the Elizabeth Bentley Theatre.

"My kids deserve a bigger, better venue than what we have with the amount of people that were trying to see them last year," he said

When Sell connected with Winder and Theater Manager Richard Elvin, the idea of a partnership seemed beneficial for both programs.

"We have this amazing venue at LBCC that needs performers, especially students, using it," Winder said.

Thursday's performance will be the first of four shows, and the mid-valley debut of "Legally Blonde: The Musical."

For Sell and his cast of 40 students, the thought of performing the Tony Award-nominated musical on the big stage is a dream come true.

"This partnership gives us the chance to work with the talented people and great facilities at LBCC to put on an even better show for a much bigger audience. We're so thankful to LBCC for the opportunity," Sell said.

Winder called it a win-win.

"Their shows and students get the venue they deserve, and LBCC gets to serve the community by showcasing this incredible local talent," he said.

The musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, is based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the hit 2001 romantic-comedy starring Reese Witherspoon.

It follows Elle Woods, a popular blonde sorority girl from Los Angeles who loves everything pink and is used to getting she wants. Elle, played by sophomore Emma Butler, assumes she will one day marry her perfect boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, played by senior Austin Bendele.

Elle's "Greek Chorus" of Pilar (junior Meighan VanVeldhuizen), Margot (freshman Abigail DeYoung) and Serena (senior Drew May) anticipate such a proposal is coming in the musical's opening song "Omigod You Guys."

When Warner unexpectedly breaks up with her because she isn't "serious" enough, Elle's world comes crashing down.

"She comes up with this brilliant idea that she should go to Harvard Law School, because he is going to Harvard," Butler said.

At Harvard, Elle's snobby classmates and teachers aren't very accepting of her. Only teaching assistant Emmett Forrest (junior Nate Corneliusen) is kind enough to help her.

Warner's new girlfriend, Vivienne Kensington (senior Ciera Schlosser) immediately has it out for Elle. She prompts Professor Callahan (senior Ethan Faulkner) to kick Elle out of class for not being prepared.

Faulkner, who is performing in his first musical and second production at South Albany, said Callahan introduces himself well in the song "Blood in the Water."

"I'm your worst nightmare in college, and if you think you're going to get by just doing what you can, you're wrong. You'll have to work hard to get on my good side," Faulkner said.

"It's big and jazzy, and really fun to do," he added.

Elle eventually finds her passion for law and helping others.

"The whole play is basically her discovering she is more than her looks and the way others see her," Butler said.

On the big stage

"With the bigger stage comes bigger spectacle, better lighting and sound options, and for this one we’re using our fly system a lot to drop in various set pieces and other effects," Winder said.

For example, one scene has Elle and her beautician friend Paulette Buonufonte (junior Kasper O'Neill) visiting a trailer park.

"Richard (Elvin) from LBCC has built us a quarter of a trailer that we'll just fly in, and it looks just like a crappy old, '70s camp trailer," Sell said. "It will add a really cool visual element to that particular scene."

Members from the LBCC theater club, The Black Curtain Society, will serve as crew for the musical. Its president, Isaac Newton, will handle the lighting.

Sell said the ability to light specific areas of the stage may sound like a pedestrian feature to some, but he's never been able to do it in previous productions.

"The stuff we can do with the light is a real game-changer for us in terms of showing the audience where to look and masking things we don't want them to see," he said.

The goal of this collaboration is simple for Sell.

"I really want to develop kids and give them the opportunity to come out of high school with knowledge and experience with theater technology, as well as performing," he said.

Beyond the show, Sell said, it's important that his students get early exposure to a college environment and connection to LBCC, so when they start thinking about the next steps after high school the transition may feel less intimidating.

The musical is actually part of a class taught by Sell and choir director Brett DeYoung. It began the first day of school and has met four days a week and after school to work on choreography, music and to rehearse. Most of the auditions for it were held last May.

"It's been a lot of fun," DeYoung said.

"This cast has worked harder than any I've ever had. They have been ahead of every deadline I've set sometimes by weeks," Sell said.

Sell and Winder are optimistic that this is only the beginning of the partnership.

"We hope to make this an annual partnership for the SAHS musical. We even sort of started talking about what we can do next year," Winder said. "And we’ll of course keep doing all of our improv shows."

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