HARLINGEN — She sang of the sorrows, the quietness, the passions, and the mindless joy of a middle-aged woman who’d seen her share of love and loss and all things in between.

Lauren Bender is only 18 years old, but in her portrayal of Paulette in “Legally Blonde the Musical” she conveys the pain and majesty of a woman twice her age. She did it so well, that audiences who saw her perform at the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory fell in love with her.

“She’s a beautiful character and it was a great privilege to be able to portray her,” said Lauren, a senior at Harlingen High School.

“She’s a bit out there,” Lauren continued. “She’s a big personality and she went through a very rough relationship with Dewey, her ex – boyfriend. She is a big personality and so this relationship kind of dimmed her light in a sense.”

“Legally Blonde the Musical” gave its last performance Sunday at the PAC to audiences at once amused, intrigued, impressed and relieved by this layered production: Amused at the playful characters (and caricatures), intrigued by the deeper themes of power and the celebration of identity, impressed by the quality of the performance and relieved for the chance to laugh after the struggles of the past year.

Paulette, a.k.a. Lauren Bender, is the close friend of Elle Woods who was played by Aaron Blount.

“When she meets Elle she realizes that she can be who she was, she can be who she is,” Lauren said. “She steps back into her light, and she meets Kyle, and they get married and she has a happy ending.”

Throughout the show, Lauren stepped forward on the stage, faced her audience and sang her heart out with a passion and authenticity that warmed everyone who listened. That this was her first major role in a musical was a surprise. She played a convincing Paulette, with all the character’s grief and glory.

“I really tried to get into her headspace of what the relationship with Dewey was like and what her life was like even before that and the type of person she was before Dewey ,” Lauren said. “I tried to create her character arc and figure out how I could show that in a way that would be relatable.”

As Paulette, she wished to advocate for her character’s struggles, her joys – her humanity.

“I hope that somebody in the audience related to her and found that her story was being shared,” Lauren reflected.

Many could connect with her for her reality, that reality being that humanity is made of a broad range of body images. She’s a fine antidote to the almost malignant delusion that everyone has to fit into a narrow stereotype that’s impossible for most. Her presence and performance sent a powerful message that’s important to her and so many others.

“I know that when I was starting to get into theater something that was big on my mind was that I had never seen somebody who looked like me on the stage before,” she said. “When I finally got the opportunity to be cast in a production as big as Legally Blonde was, I jumped at that opportunity.”

The statement and her mission became clearer to her as the production progressed.

“Getting further in the process I started realizing I can be that person,” she said. “Some other little girl or little boy, some child might see me up there and say, ‘Hey, I have a passion for acting, I love singing, maybe I can do what she’s doing. Just because I don’t look like the ideal body type in social media and everything doesn’t mean that I can’t do what I want to do.’”

Many received that message with enthusiasm. During the premiere for the kids from Gutierrez Middle School of Arts and Sciences, audience participation was at a premium. When Paulette told Elle, “I’m not like you,” a twelve year old girl near the front row shouted, “You are BEAUTIFUL!”

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