Jim Hesselman saw at least 200 actresses from across the country who wanted the lead in the production of "Legally Blonde: The Musical" at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island. But the one he picked at March auditions in Tennessee was a bubbly brunette from Bettendorf.
Mr. Hesselman is a veteran director who's been doing Circa shows for more than 20 years -- most recently "Nuncrackers" and "Hairspray." He had to pick from 800 people at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) in Chattanooga who auditioned for the 19-member Circa cast.
It wasn't until after the callbacks that he found out the woman he chose was local. Samantha Pauly is a 22-year-old Pleasant Valley High grad.
"She wasn't blonde, but dark brunette. She had a terrific voice, great presence," Mr. Hesselman said. "It was a big surprise to find that the best Elle we saw was going to have to do a little, um, touching up to be 'Legally Blonde.' Then, after we had cast Samantha, to find out she was from Bettendorf of all places made us feel like it was meant to be all along."
VIDEO: Legally Blonde at Circa 21
The 2007 Broadway show, which was based on the 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon, won the Olivier Award for Best Musical. It tells the story of Elle Woods, a sorority girl who enrolls at Harvard Law School to win back her ex-boyfriend.
"It's really a great traditional musical," Mr. Hesselman said. "It's a very old-fashioned musical. It makes you feel good."
Ms. Pauly -- who bleached her hair to play Elle -- was interested in the role in part because she's from the area and grew up seeing Circa musicals. "My grandma loves going to Circa," she said.
In addition to the offer from Circa, she had offers from theaters in New York state, Connecticut and Montana after her SETC auditions and 40 callbacks.
"One thing I really love about the show is it's unlike anything I've ever done before, especially the role," Ms. Pauly said of the profoundly pink, upbeat musical. "I've always been a darker, villainous character, and Elle is so bubbly and perky. Elle is a great character.
"She's spunky; she's smart; she's sweet," she said. "She's so nice to everybody. She has the best dog in the world. It's an exciting show, and I love working with everybody, too. The director is great. Everything has been really fun, even though it's moving really fast."
A recent musical-theater graduate of Viterbo University in LaCrosse, Wis., Ms. Pauly played Velma in Pleasant Valley's 2008 production of "Chicago," which went to the International Thespian Festival that year. She's also had high-school leads in "Pajama Game" and "You Can't Take It with You," and she played Joanne in "Company" at Viterbo.
"She's a great dancer; she's danced for 16 years. She changed her hair, and she was perfect for Elle," Mr. Hesselman said. "We're very glad we found her, even though she is a brunette."
Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock recalled the director saying of Ms. Pauly: "Her hair is black; she's tiny; she's cute; and she's incredibly talented."
Each Circa production has just 12 days of rehearsal, and the prep for "Legally Blonde" was complicated by the fact that the show includes a key canine role. Bruiser, Elle's main accessory, is being played by a 7-year-old Rock Island chihuahua, Claire.
"It was difficult for her to get used to us and all the music and everything," said Cara Chumbley of Moline, who plays Margot and has scenes with Bruiser. "It's been a lot of fun. Just like the cast, she has a lot of growth to do."
"I love working on the show, because it's just so fun," she said last week. "It's coming together so well. I just love the music, and the people, and everything about it."
Joining Ms. Pauly and Ms. Chumbley are several actors making return appearances on the Circa '21 stage -- Tristan Layne Tapscott, of "Southern Crossroads," "Grease," and "All Shook Up"; Tom Walljasper, of "Hairspray," "Peter Pan," and "Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"; Andrea Moore, of "Cats," "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," and "Grease"; Eddie Staver III, of "The Full Monty" and "Empty Nest"; John Payonk, of "Hairspray," "Nuncrackers," and "South Pacific"; and Chandler Ford, Kristin Gilbert, and Isaac Jankowski, all of "Hairspray."
Mr. Hesselman -- who has directed 200-plus productions at Derby Dinner Playhouse outside Louisville, Ky., and teaches theater at Indiana University-Southeast -- credited Mr. Hitchcock for succeeding with Circa "against all odds." Dinner theaters are an endangered species nationwide, he said, but Circa consistently puts out high-quality shows, including performances by the Bootleggers, the theater's performing wait staff.
If you go
-- What: "Legally Blonde: The Musical." -- When: Friday through July 28. 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (buffet dinner served from 6 to 7 p.m.); 5:45 p.m. Sundays (buffet dinner served from 4 to 5 p.m.); and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday (plated lunch served noon to 12:45 p.m.). -- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island. -- Tickets: $47.55 for the evening productions and $41.28 for the matinees; reduced prices for students, seniors, and groups of 12 or more. Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or go to circa21.com.