On the surface, Laura Bell Bundy may seem like the ideal actress to play the blonde yet surprisingly brainy sorority girl Elle Woods in the stage adaptation of the hit 2001 film Legally Blonde. Like the radiant Reese Witherspoon, who brought the character to fuchsia-colored life on the big screen, Bundy is warm, winning and endlessly enthusiastic. "Elle] is very positive and optimistic and bubbly. And I have a little of that natural bubbliness in my personality — and I'm blonde. So it seems like a perfect fit in a way," says the Kentucky native who stars in Legally Blonde, opening at the Palace this month.
Dig deeper, though, and you learn that the 25-year-old Bundy is no Malibu Barbie. Indeed, she's actually made something of a career out of playing the kind of bad girls that audiences love to hate. When she was only ten, she received a Drama Desk Award nomination for the Off-Broadway musical Ruthless!, playing a monstrous little Shirley Temple-wannabe, Tina Denmark, who strangles her rival with a jump rope to score the lead in the school play. In 2002 Bundy created the character of Amber von Tussle, the snot-nosed nemesis of Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Then, last year, she tackled one of the biggest roles on Broadway as Wicked's superficial and self-centered Glinda.
"I've had some parts where I've played decent people, but most of the time in theatre I'm playing someone not so decent," she says with a laugh. "So playing Elle is a refreshing change."
The buoyant, frothy show, directed by veteran choreographer Jerry Mitchell, follows the ditz-out-of-water story of a Bel-Air babe who drives a Porsche, worships pink and totes around a tiny Chihuahua in her Prada handbag. When her boyfriend dumps her—claiming that she's not "serious enough" for him to marry (he wants to be a senator)—she sets out to prove him wrong, and win back his heart, by getting admitted to Harvard Law School. Sounds far-fetched, but Bundy is working hard to ground the character in reality. "It's the most rewarding thing as an actor to be able to go on a journey with a character who really grows during the show. [Elle] goes back to win the love of a man. But what she realizes is that she has to love herself and that who she is as a person is much more important than this guy." Indeed, the musical taps into the same girl-power spirit that made Wicked and Hairspray such enormous successes, and Bundy identifies strongly with those female-centric themes. "I never believed that I was going to get my self-worth from a man. My career and my creative pursuits and my passion have always come first."
Although she relates to Elle's indomitable, can-do spirit, Bundy warns not to get too carried away with comparisons. "I'm more dry and sarcastic—and a little more jaded. And though I like being up on fashion, I don't really read Vogue or follow it as much as Elle. I actually spend way more time shopping in Whole Foods than I do at Bergdorf Goodman!"