Seventeen years ago, Reese Witherspoon brought Elle Woods to life in Legally Blonde, a film based on a novel by Amanda Brown, who was inspired by her own experiences studying law at a top university in California. The film earned more than US$141m (A$190.05m) at the box office worldwide, led to a sequel (and, according to recent reports, a third film is now in the works) and then, in 2007, a musical version of Legally Blonde arrived on the Broadway stage.
In 2012, Legally Blonde made its Australian debut at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, starring Lucy Durack and ultimately winning five Helpmann Awards. And now, for a limited season, Sydneysiders have the chance to relive Elle Woods’ love-driven academic pursuits with leading Pro/Am producers Packemin Productions staging the production at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres.
The stage version of Legally Blonde is largely faithful to the film’s narrative. It sees bubbly sorority sister Elle (Mikayla Williams) dumped by her image-conscious boyfriend, Warner (Joshua Keane), who’s decided to find a ‘serious’ girlfriend who’ll eventually help him curry favour as a politician. Determined to prove to him that she’s up to the task, Elle follows Warner cross-country to Harvard Law School, studying hard to earn her place in one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Of course, it’s a journey on which Elle ultimately proves to those around her – and herself – that there’s far more to her than meets the eye.
With a book by Heather Hach and music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe (Heathers: The Musical) and Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls), Legally Blonde is a well-crafted piece that’s made a far more successful transition from screen to stage than many motion pictures that have gone on to manifest as a musical. Its score features a generous share of earworms and the whole thing makes for an amusing ride.
Packemin Productions has risen to the challenge of taking on a work that is, in many respects, ambitious, not least because of its demands on many of its cast members. Director Jessica Fallico has succeeded in helming an energetic production that evokes the sense of fun that any staging of Legally Blonde must have.
Williams is as genial and as charming as Elle Woods as one would hope. Hers is a convincing portrayal of the underestimated law student in which she demonstrates strong comedic timing and vocals. Playing Emmett, the abstemious and cerebral young lawyer integral in affecting Elle’s transformation, Sapsford is similarly affable. Williams’ and Sapsford’s chemistry is believable.
Rodney Dobson is always a pleasure to watch on stage and here, as Elle’s hard-headed but misogynistic professor, the seasoned professional quickly shows himself to be an asset to this production. Keane’s Warner is suitably conceited and tactless, Bridget Woolnough ensures his preppy Harvard girlfriend, Vivienne, is frosty, and Madison Hegarty delights with an impressively aerobic performance as fitness impresario-turned accused killer, Brooke.
But arguably the standout principal is Jocelyn O’Brien, who shines as the kind-hearted hair salon owner, Paulette. Not only is she funny and a frequent scene stealer, but provides one of the strongest and most consistent vocal performances on the night. Meanwhile, Jordan Vassallo earns a lion’s share of audience laughs as Carlos, helping to make Act Two’s ‘There! Right There!’ one of the highpoints of the show.
Almost 50 performers take the stage in Packemin’s Legally Blonde and the bigger numbers certainly benefit from the strong choral backing that they’re able to provide. There are some terrific dance highlights too, notably the tight and intricate skipping routine for Act Two opener ‘Whipped into shape’ and the Irish dancing-infused ‘Legally Blonde (remix)’ (choreographed by Sally Dashwood). Peter Hayward leads a 14-piece orchestra that does well in its reproduction of the upbeat pop-tinged score, while Sean Clarke’s lighting design matches the vibrancy of the onstage action.
Packemin’s Legally Blonde is sprightly, sassy and immensely enjoyable. It’s a story of the potential one can unleash when challenged and it’s a great night of entertainment for theatregoers of all ages.
LEGALLY BLONDE – SEASON DETAILS
Presented by: Packemin Productions
Venue: Riverside Theatres
Dates: Playing now until Saturday 11 August, 2018