Review: Legally Blonde (Churchill Theatre)
Lucie Jones returns to the lead role of Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's musical
Only a true curmudgeon would fail to have at least a bit of fun at this candy-coated, multi-coloured, good-hearted musical. Based on the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film comedy, the story – as many people will already know – follows cute, privileged, apparently vacuous Elle Woods ("pink is my signature color!") as she blags her way into Harvard Law School in pursuit of her super-hot ex-boyfriend, turning out to be a surprising success while still preserving her unique blend of sweetness, rock-solid self belief and almost ferocious positivity.
It's peppy, high-energy fluff shot through with unexpected moments of real wit, along with, it must be said, moments that might give die-hard feminists the vapours. The 'Bend & Snap' scene – pivotal to the film – where Elle and her cohorts teach a lesson in picking up men by dropping items on the floor then provocatively bending down to retrieve them, is just one example. The ultra-camp depiction of a couple of gay characters – while presented entirely without malice, and in keeping with the larky, cartoon-like tone of the whole show – could also potentially make eyes water. Most of it defies being taken seriously, which is just as well.
Anthony Williams' slick, hyperactive staging is in most ways the equal of the much-loved West End original and if Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's catchy, poppy score doesn't feature anything approaching a classic showtune, it has endless vitality. The lyrics are occasionally rip-snortingly funny, even refreshingly ironic – "Keep it positive/as you slap her to the floor. Keep it positive/as you pull her hair and call her whore" is a particular favourite of mine.
In the central role, Lucie Jones brings warmth and charm by the bucketload, plus a voice of rare sweetness and power. Elle's numbers sound better in this version than they do on either of the cast recordings and her rendition of the title song – a rare moment of introspection in this raucous score – soars. She isn't a natural dancer though and she could be funnier and crazier. Sheridan Smith and her successors in the original production all had a kooky eccentricity and manic edge that is missing here. It doesn't help that Jones has been saddled with some of the most unflattering, ageing, cheap-looking costumes I've ever seen on a musical leading lady. No West Coast princess would be seen dead in half of these outfits: Elle is supposed to be a fashionista yet unfortunately looks for the most part here like a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills fallen on hard times.
As Elle's biggest ally and friend Emmett Richmond, David Barrett is an absolute delight, while Bill Ward is a swaggering ham as ultra-slick Professor, and that is just what the role requires. Helen Petrovna impresses hugely as a fitness instructor Elle and her team defend on a murder charge, her skipping rope work-out number being even more elaborate here than in the original production.
The revelation though is former EastEnders actor Rita Simons as Paulette, the brassy but self-esteem-compromised salon owner Elle befriends. She is outrageously funny, completely lovable and vocally magnificent: it's a really classy musical comedy debut.
Whatever my reservations, this show is undeniably a crowd-pleaser, and it leaves no stone unturned – from a couple of scene-stealing dogs to firing pink confetti all over the audience, to a newly added megamix at the end which sees the entire company decked out in shocking pink – in its attempts to get the punters on their feet. It works.
Legally Blonde runs at the at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley from 18 to 23 September before touring to High Wycombe, Bristol, Woking, Northampton, Rhyl, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, Southampton, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Stoke, Canterbury, Norwich, Leeds, Blackpool, Sunderland, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Liverpool, Brighton and Wimbledon.