Musical-theatre fans know Julia Ullrich for iconic brunette roles—parts like the dark, tormented teen Veronica in Fighting Chance Productions’ Heathers: The Musical.
It’s true: Ullrich is blessed with long, chestnut tresses. Which makes it a little bit of a stretch for her to take on Elle Woods—the ridiculously chipper, and famously platinum-maned, L.A. sorority gal/shopaholic in Legally Blonde: The Musical. In the over-the-top show based on the hit 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie, Elle follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School when he decides she’s not serious or intellectual enough for him.
“It’s a bit tough to do,” admits Ullrich, explaining she’ll be wearing a long blond wig for the production. She’s speaking to the Straight over the phone on a lunch break at a local high school, where she’s just taught a junior drama class—her day job. She says putting on the platinum mane changes the way she talks and moves. Like, omigod: “I just exude more confidence and you feel like people are watching you. It feels less like me and more like her.”
So who does Ullrich herself feel closer to? She admits it’s Veronica, the lead in Heathers: The Musical, by Broadway-hit writer Laurence O’Keefe, who also adapted Legally Blonde for the stage. “Veronica is very much earthy and awkward—a lot more like me,” explains Ullrich, who trained in Capilano University’s musical-theatre program before heading to UBC to study acting and then education. “I’m not that kind of a girly-girl. I don’t really feel like this Valley Girl. But all the other girls are great—the ones who play my three friends are super peppy and that helps a lot.”
Still, the experience of Heathers has helped Ullrich adapt to O’Keefe’s powerhouse, pop-rock-amped songs—ones that are more difficult than it might at first appear.
“They’re composed by the same people, so the musical styles are similar: both [Heathers and Legally Blonde] have huge, belty songs,” Ullrich says. “And both my characters are very much in every scene. It’s very vocally challenging. And Elle is super outgoing—larger than life.”
Adding to the complexity is the fact that Ullrich is joined on-stage by Elle’s ever-present Chihuahua, Bruiser—played here by a Port Moody canine named Molly. The actor is just getting to know the pint-sized pooch her character famously carries around everywhere and dresses in its own designer outfits: “We’re not sure how excited she’s going to be on-stage yet,” she says with a laugh.
The show’s over-the-top antics extend to the sets for this Align Entertainment production, Ullrich says, adding it’s a full staging with a live band. “You can’t get away from the fact that there’s a sorority house and Harvard—and it’s going to be incredibly pink.”
Yet, amid all the levity, pastel hues, and designer purses, Ullrich is learning not only to love her songs and her character, but to respect the messages the musical ultimately puts forth.
“I really just appreciate Elle’s journey,” she says. “She starts off as a super privileged person. Near the beginning she says, ‘See, dreams really do come true. You never have to compromise.’ ”
But then her character gradually sees that life isn’t all rosy and that she should embrace her brainier self: “She learns that if you are really determined you can succeed,” Ullrich says.
Align Entertainment presents Legally Blonde: The Musical at Burnaby’s Michael J. Fox Theatre from Friday (February 2) to February 17.