You won’t hear me say this often — but Oh. My. God, you guys! Legally Blonde, the stage musical adaptation of the film of the same name, is as bouncy, bright and shiny as Elle’s blonde locks. In case you missed the 2001 film, Legally Blonde follows Elle Woods — a ditzy, rich Malibu girl in search of a husband — along her journey to discover her own intelligence, drive, and inner beauty.
It may be that we’re coming to expect musical extravagance from anything John Frost (no relation, as far as I know) has a hand in producing. But Legally Blonde goes above and beyond. Its staging, choreography (Jerry Mitchell) and design (David Rockwell) are pretty close to flawless, from Elle’s towering Barbie-pink Delta Nu sorority house onwards. This is as glossy as musical theatre gets.
Mitchell’s choreography, in particular, has a way of drawing the eye towards detail — in costume, body language, or lyric — without losing sight of the bigger picture. Musically, Legally Blonde’s score (Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin) is no classic. The opening number, “Omigod You Guys”, is an instant earworm and “Chip on My Shoulder” is a resonant study-anthem, but beyond that the songs only really serve to carry us along through the plot. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of laughs — there are. The dialogue (Heather Hach) is sharp and sassy, if not terribly self-aware.
Lucy Durack (WICKED’s Glinda the Good Witch) is an exceptionally strong singer. She plays an endearing Elle more reminiscent of Clueless’s Cher (Alicia Silverstone) than Reese Witherspoon. Along with her shrill-voiced “Greek Chorus” of Deltu Nu sorority girls, her energy and optimism is infectious. When Elle arrives dressed as a Playboy bunny to a stuffy academic do, her confidence in the face of humiliation deserves the cheer it gets.
Rob Mills rose to fame on Australian Idol, and he’s in his element as the smooth, douchey Warner. David Harris channels dorky-but-charming Joss Whedon leads for his Emmett, the TA who encourages Elle to prove Harvard — and Warner — wrong. Helen Dallimore is a real standout as Paulette, a down-on-her-luck manicurist. But let’s not forget little Bruiser — Elle’s Chihuahua pup — who incites choruses of “aww!” from the audience (and never misses a cue or poops on anything!).
Despite all this, Legally Blonde: The Musical is sparkly, shiny, feminist fool’s gold. (Oh come on, you knew this was coming from me.) Run the Bechdel Test past the play and you come up with one scene in which two women talk about something other than men — despite the major theme of Women Discovering Their Worth Through Study.
[SPOILER WARNING: highlight to read the next paragraph]
From here, it’s easy to follow the progression: Elle enrols at Harvard to pursue Warner; she gets into Harvard not because she passes her LSAT (she does) but because Admissions likes her headshot; she threatens to give up because Warner and friends belittle her; she gets back on the horse after a pep ballad from Emmett; Elle helps Paulette face down her ex — but Emmett supervises; and she gives up again because her professor sexually harasses her. Then, at last, we have the Bechdel-passing scene — followed by Emmett-supervised success and an engagement. (Elle’s endgame proposal feels something like a concession — as if that’s the fight for equality done with.)
[END SPOILER WARNING]
Some might accuse me of nit-picking. Sure, any of those instances in isolation are fine, and there’s nothing wrong with a male mentor. But, viewed overall, Legally Blonde’s final message isn’t “girls can do anything!” It’s really: “girls can do anything — with guidance from a man!”
There are other problematic elements. The scene that gets the biggest laugh is when Elle’s lesbian classmate responds enthusiastically to the “bend and snap”, Elle’s signature attention-grabbing move. It’s a joke that relies on the idea that lesbian desire is inherently funny. I could go on.
We should also mention, while we’re on serious matters, the totally unfortunate-looking shiny potato sack of a suit Elle pours Emmett into as she makes him over. Elle, I thought you had a Bachelor in Fashion Design!
In short: Legally Blonde is exceptionally well staged, wonderfully performed, and fabulous fun. Mad props! Go see it — and enjoy it. But take your critical eyes with you. Elle Woods wouldn’t expect anything less.
Legally Blonde runs at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, until 21 April 2013.