Thursday, 14 January 2010
Blondes definitely have more fun
Ohmygod, ohmygod you guys.
I was lucky (and well-connected) enough to go to the press night of the new West End incarnation of Legally Blonde, and I'm now ashamed to say my expectations weren't that high. This is odd for two reasons: First, I absolutely love the original 2001 movie (a total Witherspoonful of sugar) and second, I have adored the Broadway soundtrack of the musical version for well over a year now, and think it's work of genius. So why the hesitation? I sometimes feel that British producers and directors can take a good thing and overthink it. I thought so with Wicked when it first arrived (again, love it, have seen it three times, but what was with the British accents and obvious cultural tweaks?) It's not as if we can't handle a little US drawl over here; many cultural references have seeped into our consciousness from years of sitcoms and romcoms anyway. The other thing is our bizarre need to cast 'faces' rather than talent. Denise van Outen, Jon from S Club, Gareth Gates and anyone from a soap can all stick to their day jobs, as far as I'm concerned. Despite many 'faces', Legally Blonde has remained delightfully all-American, thankfully, as so much of the story is based on East- and West-coast stereotype. If anything, I felt more informed than the cast in this respect: one of the only things that bugged me throughout was Sheridan Smith's very New York-y twang, especially when her 'California girl' character came up against Emmett, supposedly from the Boston slums, but audibly more West-coast than her. But elocutionary pedantry aside, there was very little to be irked by.
Sheridan Smith is sheer dynamite*, carrying the show on her perky little shoulders without even breaking a sweat. Elle Woods leads 16 of the show's 18 numbers, and the range and movement involved make for a hardcore singathon, but she did admirably well. I just wanted to give her a hug and hand her a sports drink afterwards. Duncan FromBlue rises to the challenge and gives a smooth vocal performance, although his acting could use a little work. It is to the credit of the rest of the cast that he stands out as pronouncing each word a little unnaturally, as though learning to be human rather than American, but the superficiality of the character makes even that forgivable. A great supporting turn from Chris Ellis-Stanton as the UPS dreamhunk (with accompanying porn theme) and astounding skipping-and-belting action from How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?'s Aoife Mulholland, transformed from demure governess to aerobics queen Brooke, all rock-hard abs and platinum hair. I was expecting to love Alex Gaumond as Emmett, one of the few unknown main cast members (which usually translates as the only musical theatre professional), but I found him a little weak and not nearly charming enough. The material serves him impassioned lyrics, high romance and lush melodies on a silver platter, but while never musically 'off', he was never exactly 'on', either. He showed a glimmer of greatness in one of my favourite numbers, Take It Like a Man, but didn't make enough of his big notes and snappy lyrics.
This by no means spoilt my fun, as Smith had more than enough chutzpah for the both of them, and another complete and utter surprise was Jill Halfpenny as trailer-trash hairstylist Paulette. The US cast featured Broadway diva Orfeh in this comedic gem of a role, and I have to say, I didn't see how a former Eastender and Strictly contestant could possibly live up to it. Yes, she's done Chicago, but who hasn't these days? It just goes to show you shouldn't judge a gal by her CV, because she was actually one of the highlights. Charming, gutsy, but not stealing the show, she made Paulette less of a caricature and more of a sweetie. She made Ireland, the show's most baffling track, funny and moving, and her bend and snap was truly brilliant. My favourite, favourite part of this show, the Delta Nu Greek Chorus girls, more than exceeded my expectations. Grease's Susan McFadden and newcomer Ibinabo Jack were a powerful pair as Serena and Pilar, but Amy Lennox as Margot was the standout performance for me - her voice and moves were flawless, and she risked out-singing Sheridan 'off-the-telly' Smith on a couple of occasions. What I love best about ensemble musicals is when the chorus really milk their small parts, and militant Enid Hoops and closeted pool boy Nikos were also a fine example of this.
Song-wise..the surreal brilliance of Gay or European? in the second act cannot accurately be described... you will just have to go and see for yourself. It was also very refreshing to see a gay clinch or two choreographed into a mainstream musical. The comedy definitely worked better than the tragedy - while Bend and Snap, What You Want and Ohmigod You Guys were pinker and perkier than I could ever have predicted, the lone moment of sensitivity in Legally Blonde was a little lost. While Smith has all the energy and humour the role demands, her voice is a little harsh and lacks the softness needed in this one song. Light and shade is not her strong point, and as lots of her 'backup girls' seemed to have that edge on her I would be interested to see an understudy performance just for that one song. Relationship meltdown Serious was inevitably hilarious, and the only downer was Professor Callaghan's Blood in the Water, which I never really liked anyway. Stage Callaghan is creepy and smarmy enough without taking up too much of your time, which is ideal.
I could actually go on for pages about this, but I don't want to completely ruin the experience for you. This show works because it's unashamedly camp, tongue-in-cheek and escapist; the score and book are a witty romp through girl power, romance and chihuahuas (LOVED the dogs). Production magic such as Elle's 'Ohmigod' dress change, the department store scenery emerging from two plain doors, the courtroom/bathroom madness and the orange hue of the prison workout scene just make it even more of a visual feast. A note to the costume department - Sheridan's hot pink courtroom dress was beyond fabulous, but how on earth did her clashing coral pink shoes get overlooked? As Elle would say, truly heinous. Despite this fashion slip-up, you will come out tapping your toes and feeling great about the world, having laughed your mascara right off. Take your mum, take your daughter, take your hen party, safe in the knowledge that it will be money well spent. Snaps to all involved.
*My misconceptions about her musical abilities may have something to do with this: