OAKLAND -- Claire Buchignani was thrilled to play Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun" two months ago at Woodminster Amphitheater. Playing the lead role of Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde: The Musical" from Friday through Sept. 15 at the same venue, she said, "is phenomenal."

Her colleagues point out that this same word can be used to describe her performance in the production, which tells the story of a sorority girl from Los Angeles who goes to Harvard Law School in the hopes of patching things up with her former boyfriend.

"Claire can morph into the role of Elle because of her professional and natural talent," said Linda Dorsey, who plays Paulette in "Legally Blonde." "Thanks to her, the show is really going to be a fantastic, perfect ending to the season" of summer musicals.

Buchignani, 25, grew up in Sebastopol and studied acting at the University of Arizona. She's lived in New York since graduating from college in 2010 and has had roles in several films and many theatrical productions around the country.

What makes Buchignani so good on stage? "She's an absolute professional," Dorsey said. "She's always prepared and open to feedback. Also, she's a triple threat, since she's great at singing, dancing and acting."

Buchignani said her love of the performing arts began when she watched the musical classic "Singin' in the Rain" with a baby sitter.

"I was captivated and said, 'That is what I want to do,' and I have been following the dream ever since," she said.

The professional actress, who admitted that she didn't enjoy Shakespeare until she went to college, said she was elected for a leading role in a movie musical shortly after arriving in the Big Apple.

"I did that for a year, and it was really wonderful," Buchignani explained.

The character she played "was quite different from me and a nice challenge, since she had some light and dark qualities," the actress said. "I got the chance to experiment within that."

To play the lead role in "Legally Blonde," Buchignani said, "I just had to go back to my high school days and practice some California lingo." She also watched the musical on YouTube and made sure her vocal chords were up to the job.

"This show is more like an operetta than a musical," Buchignani said. "It's pretty much one musical number after another, song after song. There's not much dialogue, but there are many key changes to the music and costume changes. Plus, some of the numbers are up to eight minutes long."

When all the songs come together, though, "it's really exciting to see," she said. "I'm so glad that the show is coming to the Woodminster theater."

Buchignani was familiar with Annie Oakley and the music in "Annie Get Your Gun." But with "Legally Blonde," she said, "I had to start from scratch and prepare very differently."

To best understand the emotions of Elle, she used an online program called Pinterest, which allows you to bring together different photos for inspiration.

"I looked at images of Malibu and Boston, things that would be interesting and special to Elle. They helped get me into the right mindset," Buchignani said.

In addition, the performer wanted to be in peak physical condition, so she "could sing, dance and act the whole time," Buchignani said. She even decided to keep up with the cast for the jump-rope number, "Whipped Into Shape," even though she wasn't on stage for the song.

"This summer at Woodminster has been the time of my life," she said. "These are two dream roles of mine. It's hard to believe it's really happening."

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