Back in 2006 the musical Hairspray rolled into London and took the town by storm, garnering perfect reviews across the board. Even the most cynical reviewer just couldn't resist and was swept away by its wit, sentiments, performances, direction and choreography. It made it very difficult to not come away with a smile. Well, it looks like we've got another one. Legally Blonde has all the elements to make it a hit, and even though I have a few quibbles (see the 'nit picking' section towards the end) I absolutely loved it.
For all those who haven't seen the Reese Witherspoon film from which this has been adapted, the story revolves around Elle Woods, a UCLA Delta Nu Sorority sister with a 4.0 grade average in fashion merchandising, and her quest to reconnect with her ex-boyfriend by following him to Harvard University's legal school.
Like many others I was immediately suspicious of another musical derived from a popular film. When Legally Blonde first made it to Broadway, I immediately dismisses it as a light and fluffy confection. I hadn't seen the film so I was just going on first impressions which in a way are correct. After I heard it was transferring to London I got ahold of the Cast Album and fell in love with it's humour and wit. It's very much in the same vein (humour wise) as Hairspray - one of my all time favourites. I then moved onto the MTV (USA) live video recording of the Broadway production and thought it was wonderful. I especially liked Laura Bell Bundy as Elle (she originated the role of Amber Von Tussle in the original cast of Hairspray) and thought the the choreography was fresh and exciting (same choreographer as Hairspray). Next step - rent the original film - which I did. In a strange turn of events the film left me sort of - cold. I felt the musical was actually - deeper than it's source material. It delves deeper into the characters, exploring their inner lives through the music and songs. The musical incarnation is actually much much better than the film.
So, here we are at the London incarnation. As with many, my introduction to the cast was through the Children In Need telecast where (prematurely) the cast performed a few numbers in medley format. Honestly, that performance cast a huge shadow of doubt on whether this London cast were up to the task. It was a bit of a disaster, I have to admit. I always suspected they weren't ready and to be honest - no one goes on those shows and comes away smelling of roses. There always seems to be some sort of sound problem or monitors not doing their job which causes people to sing off key or off pitch.I can happily report that performance was just a glitch and those dark clouds have been swept away by a fantastic production of a witty and fun musical.
From the opening number at the Delta Nu sorority where we are introduced to Elle and her sorority sisters, in particular the trio who reappear as a Greek chorus - Serena, Margot and Pilar (played by Susan Mcfadden - who won the Grease is the Word TV competition a few years ago to play Sandy in West End stage debut and is the sister of ex-Westlife singer Brian Mcfadden - Amy Lennox and Ibanabo Jack respectively) myself and the audience were whisked away on a facepaced rollercoaster of a journey. Along the way we meet the love of her life Warner Huntington lll (ex-Blue singer Duncan James), Professor Callahan (Peter Davison of Dr Who fame), her new friend Paulette (Jill Halfpenny - ex-Eastenders, Strictly Come Dancing Winner and veteran of the musical Chicago), and the professor's teaching assistant Emmett (Alex Gaumond - We Will Rock You tour and Sunday in the Park WIth George at the Wyndhams). All are wonderfully cast and bring thier characters vividly to life. The most physically fit performance of the night had to go to Aoife Mulholland who plays a fitness guru who sells jump ropes through TV infomercials. She sings AND skips rope - at the same time - AND isn't out of breath in her next scene. Amazing. And, what a six pack she has. Some of you may remember Aoife Mulholland as the one who didn't win How Do You Solve A Probelm Like Maria, who eventually did get to play Maria in The Sound of Music then went on to great aclaim as Roxie Hart in Chicago.
The one person I have yet to mention is Elle herself - Sheridan Smith - a powerhouse of singing, dancing and acting talent as well as posessing the ultimate gift - absolutely perfect comic timing. I wasn't prepared to like her as my only exposure to her talents was through an unbearably long running sitcom - 2 Lagers and a Packet of Crisps, and then through a song she sang at the Whatsonstage nominations party a few years back when she was playing Audrey in the last West End revival of Little Shop of Horrors. I clearly remember everyone raving about her performance in that production but I wasn't sold by that snippet I saw. How wrong, wrong, wrong I was. Now I see what all the fuss was about.
What's really great about this show is that you start with a smile, you end with an even bigger smile and in between you are wowed by the choreography, the music and most importantly, you care about the characters and where they end up. It's hard to imagine a better Elle though, Sheridan navigates the slippery slope of musical theatre with aplomb. I think what most frustrates people who can either take or leave musicals or even hate them is how quickly and un-naturally emotions can shift. You have to be a skilled performer to make that work and Sheridan is more than up to it. Also, what keeps this train moving at it's non stop pace is good music and songs that actually move the story forward as well as expand on and explore the individual characters. This is really the key. One song after another that never stops the action dead.
Expanding on what I alluded to earlier - it's interesting how much in common this has with Hairspray - the same choreograher - Jerry Mitchell (who also directs) and it has that same irreverant attitude to the subject matter, has tongue firmly placed in cheek, has great songs, can be hysterically funny and has at it's centre a huge heart and big affection for it's central character.
I really don't want to say much more because if you've seen the film you know the story, if you haven't seen the film it's best to enjoy the story as it unfolds. I just want to add a few more credits - Music and Lyrics are by Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy: The Musical), Lyrics and Music are by Nell Benjamin (this is her first big musical) and the book is by Heather Hach (her first musical). (I have no idea what the difference is between Music and Lyrics and Lyrics and Music.) The set is by David Rockwell (Hairspray and the film Team America World Police).
Nit Picking - these are minor but they kind of anoyed me at the time.
1. The sound - I had heard about this ahead of time so I was prepared. Many times the music was louder than the vocals drowning out some of the great lyrics. (I have heard that this is no longer a problem).
2. The reflection - From where we were sitting in the stalls (centre- around 7 or so rows from the stage), we could see the reflection of the the monitor that's mounted under the Dress Circle - so the actors can watch the conductor - in the mirror of the beauty parlour set. It was so blatant we couldn't figure out how anyone missed it. It was very distracting during those scenes..
3. The flicker - On the same note, during the performance we kept noticing flickering lights in the stalls and eventually figured out it was the light from the monitors I just mentioned. Imagine a black and white tv turned on in a darkened room, behind you.
That's it. I hope it runs and runs. I'd love to see it again. And - It's not just for girls (my straight male colleagues wnat to see it again as well - there's alot for men to oggle).