Legally Blonde at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre – review
The musical version of the film is a five-star fiesta
Even the weather gods were smiling on Lucy Moss's revival of this 2007 musical. The heavy rain which had fallen all day held off, and pink joy was unbounded and undripped on. By the close, my jaw ached from grinning, too.
This is a show that had its origins on pink paper when Amanda Brown wrote about her unhappy experiences as a fashion icon at law school. The subsequent film (in 2001) starring Reese Witherspoon became a musical with a book by Heather Hach and music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Its UK premiere in 2010 had Sheridan Smith as Elle Woods, the aforementioned blonde who gets herself to Harvard Law School in pursuit of a man – and discovers a few things about herself and about life on the way.
In each incarnation, Legally Blonde has always packed a punch in its sparkly handbag. It's a smart show about brains as well as beauty, and about the way they interact in society at large. But it has also felt a bit brittle, thriving on a particular definition of femininity.
Moss, the co-writer and co-director of Six, and multi-nominated for Tony Awards, has done something quite remarkable. While upping the fun and the fizz, she has also made it an inclusive power-house of a musical, one that embraces difference and diversity in its casting and its attitudes, while simultaneously celebrating a world that can change if people stand together. When Elle is on the verge of quitting Harvard, it's not love that holds her there, it's a woman who steps forward and tells her she is great.
She also hauls it into 2022 with smart references to social media – everyone, all the time, is looking at their phone – the Kardashians, and a shopping trip with Timothee Chalamet.
This vision of the show, both knowing and heartfelt, is emphasised by Laura Hopkins's set, which gives the two-tier stage its own blonde fringe, and Jean Chan's stylishly over-the-top costumes which cover Elle and her friends in assertive pinks, and the lawyers in beige and subtle olive, but which make both bands look powerful and in control.
Ellen Kane's choreography is truly fabulous. It's exuberant and energetic – the skipping routine in "Whipped into Shape" is so precise and demanding that you really wonder how the cast can carry on singing – but it is also sexy rather than sexualised. There's no sense that Elle is an airhead, skittering into a world of authority; she is an outsider, but one with innate ability.
Above all, however, it's the casting that makes this version of Legally Blonde feel so fresh. As Elle, Courtney Bowman is about as far from the Mean Girls' image of a social x-ray as you can get. She's strong, warm and wise – exactly the kind of woman you'd want to be on your side. And she gets the audience on her side instantly, with knowing glances when her unpleasantly ambitious boyfriend Warner (excellently preening Alistair Tovey) ditches her because she is "too much a Marilyn and not enough of a Jackie". What Bowman's Elle goes on to prove is that you can succeed as a woman without being either.
It's a witty, beautifully sung performance of considerable authority – and it's matched by what is going on around her. As her hair-dressing ally Paulette, Nadine Higgins is a scene-stealing joy, every gesture and intonation beautifully judged and comically endearing. As Emmett, the man who "saw beyond the blonde" to Elle's mind, Michael Ahomka-Lindsay has graceful charm and the most tender of voices; Isaac Hesketh, Hannah Yun-Chamberlain, and Grace Mouat are terrific fun as the trio of girlfriends who become a Greek chorus in her mind.
The ensemble is wonderfully witty. There are even two people pretending to be dogs. And dancing. The easy, good-hearted inclusivity of the production, its sheer pleasure in its own sense of fun, means it gets away with numbers such as the hilarious "Gay or European" without a hint of being patronising or dismissive.
On its own terms, the whole thing succeeds with magnificent, all-embracing confidence. I had the best of times.