Review: Disney’s ALADDIN

No Disney magic is spared in the touring adaption of Broadway musical hit, Aladdin, based on 1992’s blockbuster animation.

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The first stars of the show are set designer Bob Crowley and costume designer Gregg Barnes. There’s enough glitz in Aladdin to completely re-sand the South Bank beach with glitter and crystals. No detail goes un-bedazzled, and the result is a spectacle that overwhelms like, well, the proverbial Aladdin’s cave. The pyrotechnics are quite literally dazzling, and even my cold, miserly heart lights up for Jim Steinmeyer’s illusion design.

It’s no surprise; Aladdin is delivered by the studios with perhaps the world’s tightest hold on their brand. Yet Disney leaves wiggle-room for some local touches – delivered with wit by our fourth-wall-defying Genie – that warm the audience right up. (“Where do you think I’m from?” he asks Aladdin. “Ipswich?”)

Aladdin successfully translates rather than replicates the film. In fact, the theatrical production gives the show a New York rags-to-riches feel, blending big band and tap into the mix. Instead of Aladdin’s monkey pal, we have three loyal buddies: Kassim (Adam-Jon Fioentino), Babkak (Troy Sussman) and Omar (Robert Tripolino). These guys have great chemistry – their numbers together are a blast (particularly “High Adventure”). It’s a shame most of Babkak’s characterisation comes back to fat jokes.

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Hiba Elchikhe and understudy Graeme Isaako are perfectly plucky as Jasmine and Aladdin, and they fill the big shoes of their filmic predecessors in sweet duets like “A Whole New World”. George Henare is an endearing Sultan, and understudy Dean Vince demonstrates that English accents always sound more evil, but it’s Aljin Abella as Iago who really steals the show with his comedic timing – and wicked laugh. Genie is such a charismatic character, and we can forgive understudy Anthony Murphy when his shrill-camp dialogue and singing is often hard to understand. Murphy sure looks the part, and Genie is certainly the character whose freedom we’re rooting for with the most vim, and who earns the biggest applause.

The ensemble deserves kudos, too, as a tireless, dynamic bunch under the supervision of director/choreographer Casey Nicolaw and a team of associates.

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Danny Troob’s orchestration is a highlight, led by music director Geoffrey Castles. There’s plenty of nostalgic earworms from Disney past, with the most striking new songs coming from the original team (music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin).

It will likely not shock you to know that Disney still has a gender problem (not to mention, famously, an exoticism problem). Where Aladdin’s monkey is replaced with three men with distinct personalities, names and songs, Jasmine’s tiger companion is replaced by nameless women from the ensemble, who march off to leave her alone in her room with an unwelcome intruder. I was disappointed, given the number of thrilled kiddos in the audience, to see Aladdin tap his cheek to request a kiss and tell Jasmine, “Don’t you owe me something for showing you around?” Why not take the opportunity, when you wield such epic influence, to normalise language that supports a culture of consent and nurturance? Shout out, by the way, to Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (make-up design) and Natasha Katz (lighting design) – the only two women listed in a creative team of 22 people.

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It all works out okay: Aladdin gets a new tragic backstory and in the end Jasmine’s dad tells her she’ll be equal ruler once she’s married. These aren’t new criticisms. I might not know how Aladdin’s magic carpet works (no, really, it’s going to keep me up at night!), but the structure of a Disney production is a tale as old as time. So it goes. Ol’ Walt sure puts on a hell of a show, and it was fun watching parents trying to unravel their children from reams of gold streamers.

Aladdin runs until 3 June at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC. You can also enter a lottery, Broadway-style, for cheap tickets throughout the season.

Photos by Jeff Busby.

 

 

 

Adelaide Fringe: Séance

I booked very cheap tickets to Adelaide months ago, not even realising we’d be here in time for Fringe. It’s a happy coincidence, so in between eating a lot and looking at myself in the Gallery of South Australia, I’ve been seeing as much theatre as my wallet can handle (not heaps, but still). Why leave my cosy AirBnB bed during daylight hours when I could write scrappy reviews all day and see shows at night?

To a Queenslander, Adelaide Fringe Festival – particularly the Rundle Park venue Garden of Earthly Delights – looks like The Ekka but for actual art. There’s a good bit of dustbowl Carnivàle vibe thrown in, and plenty to stumble across. We were contemplating Sideshow Alley (my beau has never been on a Ferris Wheel?!) when we found Séance.

It makes sense that Séance is near the thrill rides: it kind of serves as the haunted house of Fringe. Séance is, quite literally, a show-in-a-box – it takes place in a shipping crate, in pitch darkness. It’s only 15–20 minutes long, but we decided it was a far better way to sink $20 each than on dodgems. The show (and, presumably, crate) has been transported from Edinburgh Fringe, but is facilitated by newish Melbourne theatre company, Realscape (in association with Darkfield – a collaboration between Glen Neath and David Rosenberg). Their modus operandi is to present “unforgettable theatrical experiences that captivate and inspire even the sixth sense.”

Inside the container is a long table, with old-fashioned red theatre chairs lining either side. We’re asked to put on noise-cancelling headphones before we’re plunged into darkness. Without wanting to give the game away – especially with such a short show – Séance relies on aural illusion. Using binaural audio, the show takes place inside your head, with your brain extrapolating Foley into reality around you. (For those who’ve never encountered the weirdness of ASMR YouTube, binaural microphones record “3D sound”. It’s virtual reality, but via audio.)

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I’m pleased to read that Darkfield is an ongoing project – using “actors … binaural sound, pitch darkness and movement … in shipping containers to explore fear and anxiety.” What a damn fine project. Séance is the first in this collection of shows, and it proves that binaural audio and light (or lack thereof) are a fantastic way to create a memorable, affecting experience. As well, the show’s transportable nature calls back to the travelling illusionists and snake-oil salesmen of old.

But, for a show that relies on immersion, the team handling the audience is careless. While I understand the importance and complexity of safety warnings for such a show (e.g. to have someone leave partway would destroy the darkness), there was little effort to set the mood and bring us into the Spiritualist world of the séance itself. We were initiated by a dude in green basketball shorts, as chill and casual as any carnie strapping us into a ride. The show ought to have begun outside the container, not once the lights went out. This isn’t the dodgems; this is a dollar-a-minute theatre experience.

Within the audio of the show, as well, a few key clues busted the suspension of my disbelief, despite the Mulderesque fervour with which I wanted to believe. (For example, perhaps the audio could’ve been rerecorded with local accents.) But all in all, I found myself wanting more. While I get that there’s only so long you can lock 20 people in a dark box, another five, 10 or even 15 minutes would’ve allowed the writers to flesh (or perhaps spirit) out a more consistent, impactful narrative.

I loved the innovations used in Séance, and hope this spooky little show encourages more theatre-makers to push on the potential of binaural audio.

Séance plays in The Garden of Earthly Delights throughout Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Three and a half stars.

CIRCUS REVIEW: Scotch and Soda

Company 2’s Scotch and Soda began its life at Woodford — and that grassroots festival vibe stays with it, even confined to a theatre. The Judith Wright Centre again proves itself to be a chameleon space: Dan Black’s clever lighting design makes use of colourful string-lights to evoke the big top. Company 2 (known for Cantina) conjures an immersive speakeasy atmosphere in the round through simple design, costuming and music. In this case, the Crusty Suitcase Band binds the production together and takes it from great to unforgettable.

Scotch and Soda features circus staples — acrobalance, aerials and slapstick — but what sets Company 2 apart is that, while each performer is at the top of their game, there’s a larrikin sense of chaos and play. It reassured me (just in case I was wondering if I was having a great time or not) to see two of Limbo’s cast members (Danik Abishev and Heather Holliday)* in the audience, having a damn good time. If international circus talent of that magnitude loves your show, it’s definitely good stuff.

Scotch and Soda by Sean Young (SYC Studios)

Scotch and Soda photographed by Sean Young (SYC Studios)

Chelsea McGuffin (co-director), whose signature move is to tiptoe across wine bottles, could balance her way out of any dilemma; David Carberry, Daniel Catlow and Ben Walsh bring chemistry to adagio and vaulting; and Mozes is hilarious on roller-skates but gobsmacking on trapeze. But Scotch and Soda is more than spectacle: the Crusty Suitcase Band is a vital part of the performance, with weird sax breaks and percussion-offs definite highlights. They even play the plastic bag, to great effect.

The only time Scotch and Soda takes a dip in energy is during a sequence featuring budgerigars, whose unwillingness to play along is comic, but ultimately overlong — and it’s unclear how keen the budgies are to keep us company. (There was also a puppy at the start that didn’t reappear — alas!)

Company 2’s last production, She Would Walk the Sky (World Theatre Festival, in collaboration with Finegan Kruckemeyer), struggled with incorporating sluggish prose. In Scotch and Soda, the company returns to its strengths, and the result is sheer delight.

SCOTCH AND SODA played at Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts from 24 to 27 September, as part of Brisbane Festival. Company 2 returns to JWCoCA in November with Sediment.

*BTW, Strut and Fret’s LIMBO is completely astounding and I spent all my BrisFest dollars on seeing it twice.

 

DANCE REVIEW: Deluge

Motherboard Productions break away from the rambunctious structure of their previous work (you may have heard me gush about JiHa Underground…) in this meditative contemporary dance piece.

As we file in to the Powerhouse’s main theatre, performers move back and forth between the audience and a kitchen hutch that stands centre-stage. Person by person, we are offered tea. It’s a ritual that grounds the tone of Deluge and sets the scene at a low-key gathering at an Auchenflower share-house.

The kitchen vanishes, the party is washed away and we’re left holding our cups. The performers re-emerge in costumes that evoke rushing water (designed by Kiara Bulley, Bianca Bulley, Noni Harrison). Dane Alexander’s electronic soundscape takes us out into the storm, lit in blue and lightning by David Walters (who — briefly — makes the best use of strobe lighting I’ve ever seen). Each sequence of Deluge builds layers of movement patterns, repeated with swelling energy.

Jeremy Neideck (Deluge)

The performers explore grief through tidal tableaux, but the show’s most haunting moments arise out of frenzy: surges of operatic song, convulsions that suggest drowning. And, in a resonant climax, a river-spirit drags itself across the stage, weighed down by a cloak of human trash (including the paper cups and serviettes in our hands).

Water is a theme that gushes through both JiHa Underground (World Theatre Festival 2014, Brisbane Festival 2012) and Deluge, yet here Motherboard takes a brave step away from previous work — in this case, from interactive musical theatre to meditative dance. The pieces haven’t quite come together yet: there’s disconnect between the distinct Brisbane note of the kitchen scene and the body of the work, which in itself often relies on repetition over depth.

Director/lead performer Jeremy Neideck and devising troupe (Hoyoung Tak, Younghee Park, Youngho Kwon, Katrina Cornwell, Sammie Williams, Amy Wollstein) have proven their talents time and again — and Brisbane is lucky to host continued collaboration between Korean and Australian traditions. No doubt, with further development, Deluge will come to further illuminate its themes: water, ritual, loss, growth.

DELUGE played at Brisbane Powerhouse from 18 to 20 September as part of Brisbane Festival.

THEATRE REVIEW: The Mountaintop

Photos by Rob McColl

It’s after midnight on Martin Luther King’s last night on earth. There’s still work to be done — but the good doctor has run out of cigarettes.

Dr King (Pacharo Mzembe) has just given his famous and final address at Mason Temple in Tennessee — in April of 1968. We find him kicking off his shoes in his Memphis motel room, calling room service in the hope of a late-night cup of coffee.

Delivering caffeine and cigarettes to Dr Martin Luther King Jr. was not what Camae (Candy Bowers) expected of her first day on the job as a motel maid. Lonely and, after all, only human, King insists Camae stay for a cigarette. He gets far more than he bargained for.

Candy Bowers as Camae and Pacharo Mzembe as Dr Martin Luther King in QTC's The Mountaintop  shot by Rob Mccoll

In his director’s notes, Todd MacDonald quotes writer Katori Hall: “This isn’t the ‘I Have a Dream’ King. This is King, the man, not the myth. I want people to see that this extraordinary man — who is actually quite ordinary — achieved something so great that he actually created a fundamental shift in how we, as a people, interact with each other.” Mzembe, with his sonorous voice, perfects Hall’s vision of King-the-man. His ego, wit and flaws make King’s terror, in facing death, all the more moving.

The Mountaintop’s strength hangs on its dynamic leads’ playful intimacy. Bowers’ brass and sharpness keep the play on the right side of sweet as Camae’s true identity is revealed. The more fun Bowers has with her character — giving her own Dr-King-esque speech, for instance — the more she settles into her Tennessee twang.

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Kieran Swann’s design and Ben Hughes’ lighting combine to create a singular effect: Room 306, with its mildewed pink curtains, seems to exist between worlds. Swann subtly evokes both the wonder and terror of what lies beyond. Tony Brumpton’s sound design has us enter the theatre to the swell of King’s various addresses; in a sense, this will prepare us for the powerful sensory overload of the finale (composed by Busty Beatz).

Queensland Theatre Company is off on the right foot with its 2014 season. Ultimately, The Mountaintop celebrates King’s reverberations on Earth, but challenges us not to forget that we share his human ability to change the world.

Candy Bowers as Camae and Pacharo Mzembe as Dr Martin Luther King in QTC's The Mountaintop  shot by Rob Mccoll

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” says King, in his final address on 3 April 1968. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land.”

The Mountaintop (Queensland Theatre Company) runs at the Playhouse, QPAC, until 16 March 2014. Tickets $33–80.

REVIEW: Briefs (Theatre People)

Brisbane is very proud of our Briefs boys, who are off to Melbourne and the UK next with their Second Coming. Follow the links to read my five-star Theatre People review:

It’s been a long time coming. Two years have passed since Brisbane’s own cabaret burlesque boys played on a home stage — not that they’ve abandoned us. The Briefs troupe has been all over Europe and Australia, getting the good word out: Brisbane is not — never was — the “cultural black hole of Australia.” We’re the circus capital.

Briefs founders Fez “Shivannah” Faanana and Mark “Captain Kidd” Winmill return to the Powerhouse with a fresh posse: Tom Flanagan, Dallas Dellaforce, Louis Biggs and Ben Lewis. Their chemistry… Read more.

Briefs: The Second Coming (photo by Sean Young)

Briefs: The Second Coming (photo by Sean Young)

Review: The Travelling Sisters Let Loose (Anywhere Fest)

Review by Nerissa Rowan

It’s the last night of the Anywhere Theatre Festival, and the show is sold out. We meet on a street corner, before being led down a dark alleyway. What awaits us? Should we be frightened? Is this a trap?

But from behind the trees emerges a brightly lit garden surrounding a beautiful old Queenslander. The verandah is full of waiting audience members, drinking tea, coffee and hot chocolate. It has the feel of a garden party, as we run into people we know, chat and take in the surroundings.

Soon the front doors open and we are led into a spacious living room. I settle on a mattress piled with cushions, closest to the fireplace. The atmosphere is friendly, and we feel we’ve arrived at a friends’ party. When the hostesses arrive, there are magic tricks and party games which get everyone joining in. Tonight is clearly about having a good time.

The Travelling Sisters Let Loose is a comfortable cabaret, which loosely links stories, songs and traveller’s tales. Lucy Fox and Ell Sachs tell us how they found this “abandoned” house, and how they’ve passed their time since — bathing in memories and music. They wander the room, so no matter where you sit, you’ll be in the perfect spot for some part of the action.

The subject matters are many and varied, including love, loss, losing face and losing inhibitions. Whether fact or fiction, they feel like personal stories, told with real emotion in conversational style, in song or in poetry. The songs are quirky and clever, and the voices are beautiful. One epic song is accompanied with a gorgeous animation projected on a wall.

Throughout the night, the audience is treated to snacks. The relaxed atmosphere helps us feel that we can sing along or clap in time to the music just as we would among friends. Some are asked to help build a blanket fort. It would be difficult not to smile — but why would you try?

The Travelling Sisters Let Loose is an enormously warm feel-good show. It’s staged like a family concert — but my family is nowhere near as talented as this pair. I look forward to finding out what new adventures they will take us on.

The Travelling Sisters Let Loose ran from 8 to 19 May, 2013. Anywhere Theatre Festival

Alchemy @ Brisbane Square Library 17.5.13

A lovely review from Tash D at Factory Diaries.

Factory Diaries

On the third Friday of every month the Brisbane Square Library is host to a myriad of music, poetry and performance. Alchemy is the name of this monthly event and it is MCd by the lovely Frankie Vandellous.

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Unfortunately, I was a tad tardy in arriving to this month’s event so I missed the wonderful musical stylings of Wayne Jennings of The Ragtag Band fame.

I did make it in time to catch the two beautiful dancers from Evoke Dance and Theatre Company performing along to the latin grooves of Tari Hujan, however. The dancers were graceful and strong pulling off fantastic lifts and spins with the greatest of ease. Their routine showed their diversity changing paces several times.

Then the audience was treated to the poetic genius that is Zenobia Frost. This performance featured her ukulele debut in a poem/song that illustrated the contrast between her…

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Food: Item Not as Described

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual violence. (Also, relevant to that trigger warning: spoiler warning.)

La Boite describes Food as a “feast for the senses with an erotic mix of words and movement.” Critics call Steve Rodgers’ new play (directed by Rodgers and Kate Champion) sensual, a hilarious rom-com, soul food — “It will make you happy” (Stage Milk). Reading these reviews, I began to wonder if I’d seen a different play.

In Food, two sisters run a backwater takeaway joint inherited from their mother. Elma (Kate Box), the responsible elder sibling, is resigned to the daily heating up of Chiko Rolls until laidback Nancy (Emma Jackson) convinces her to transform the family shop into a restaurant. They hire charming Turkish traveller, Hakan (Fayssal Bazzi), to help out. From here, it’s well-trodden territory: the restaurant becomes a roaring success and Hakan spices up their lives as well as their cooking.

Anna Tregloan’s design is fantastic; the set features one central table against a backdrop of pots and pans. Clever projections transform these into glowing moons that frame home movies — the sisters’ childhood memories.

All action — highs and lows — takes place in this kitchen, and most of it whilst chopping vegetables. Needless to say, food is very important to Food. But it’s a stilted kind of food preparation, always pausing for conversation. I find myself wondering how the Chiko Rolls ever make it to the fryer. It makes me nervous. Handing out soup and wine to the audience is a nice touch, but being fed during shows is becoming more commonplace in the trend towards immersive theatre, and that puts the onus on each meal to do more. Mugs of minestrone abandoned after the show suggest that this scene is more of a distraction than a treat.

Box and Jackson

For Food, Rodgers collaborates with dance theatre company Force Majeure — something I was surprised to be reminded of after the show. The emphasis on movement is subtle or, at least, less rhythmic than it is frenetic.

Nothing lacks in the casting. Box, in particular, gives a genuine performance as the stoic Elma. It is uplifting to watch Elma realise her potential, and value, as a restaurateur. Jackson plays an intriguing Nancy, while Bazzi as Hakan makes an interesting transformation from happy-go-lucky pixie dream boy to entitled Casanova.

The trouble is that Food isn’t sure what kind of play it wants to be. It opens with Nancy dancing; increasingly, her movements become distressed, controlled — she is raped by an invisible presence. Cut scene, and we meet Elma and Nancy in the kitchen — where most of the play takes place. The sisters bypass the fourth wall now and then to narrate recollections in, variously, in the first and third person. Thus we flit back and forth between horrifying memoir (including several other instances of sexual assault) and cheery kitchen repartee.

When Hakan enters, pulling focus with a dramatic monologue and slideshow of his former lovers, the tone changes again — so much so that this scene is almost a play within the play. In some ways, this makes sense (he is the catalyst that’s meant to change the sisters’ world) but no transition is smooth. Likewise, while the women’s third-person monologues dissociate them from their pasts, they also promote Food’s overarching stylistic inconsistency.

It’s little wonder Elma and Nancy would want to distance themselves from the childhood memories they recount to us (in vivid detail), which include an instance of gang rape. But these sexual assaults, a source of tension between the older and younger sister, are never truly addressed — they serve to explain Nancy’s promiscuousness and sudden disappearance years before, and likewise to explain (in part, at least), Elma’s struggle with eating disorders. They’re scenes played to disturb the audience and garner sympathy, but these revelations don’t change the story or heal the characters.

The character of Hakan fulfils the cliché of the exotic traveller, just passing through, bringing with him a ray of sunshine. But this kitchen hand claims he can’t help but ogle a beautiful woman. (Elma points out he looks at Nancy “like she’s a steak.”) In the workplace, he sneaks up behind Nancy to embrace her. One failed seduction later, and he sets about taming the shrew instead.

So where is the burning sense of the erotic in Food that everyone’s talking about? It can’t be the slow top-and-tailing of beans, nor the minestrone, nor the Chiko Rolls. It’s certainly not the gang rape of a teenager by her peers while her sister waits outside. So it must be the creeping Casanova, overwhelmed by passion, who just can’t help himself. Given the women’s backstory, that this predatory sexual entitlement goes unchecked is problematic — unnerving, rather than erotic.

Rodgers’ script is thoroughly Australian in its sense of humour, yes. Moments of wit and playfulness shine through family drama and heartbreaking disclosures. But is it actually a comedy? I’d wager it belongs firmly on the drama shelf, far away from foodie feel-goods and tragi-comic comedies. But ultimately, it’s a shallow drama — with no one but the restaurant really changed by the end. Uplifting? I’m confused.

As a final note, as you enter the Roundhouse there’s a sign warning that the play contains course language, adult themes and simulated sexual intercourse. That’s a very different matter from themes of sexual violence, mentioned nowhere on that sign or on the website blurb — but appearing repeatedly in the play. I know it’s not just me who takes these themes into account when choosing what to see. On their booking page, La Boite takes the time to advise that “not all audience members will receive food.” Yet a warning regarding explicit sexual violence is overlooked.

Rodgers relies on “women’s issues” like sexual violence, eating disorders and fraught mother-daughter relationships to introduce pathos to a play that never intends to develop its three leads, who perform admirably in the face of a shallow script.

“It’s really about wanting,” says Rodgers in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “Wanting intimacy with people, wanting the love and sex that feeds you and that can complete you, settle you.” Food tries to explore the desire for intimacy in the face of sexual trauma, but to do so Rodgers and Champion needed to handle Nancy and Elma’s childhoods with the depth, subtlety and sensitivity they deserved. That way, their moments of joy would have been all the more uplifting for the contrast. Alas, I certainly found Food wanting.

Food runs at La Boite until 27 April 2013.

Legally Blonde: The Musical

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!).

Legally Blonde: The Musical

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.

P.S. Apologies for the late review! I saw Legally Blonde on opening night, 15 March, and then lost my review notebook. But here we are!