UMMTA’s already sold-out season of Legally Blonde opened to an extremely enthusiastic Guild Theatre audience, clearly full of friends and family. The show itself was likewise characterised by exuberance and a chaos of youthful emotion and optimism.
Picking Legally Blonde for a university-level production makes a lot of sense: there’s already a base-level of understanding and experience between the performers and the show. If you have time to kill, following the Uni Melb Love Letters page on Facebook will instantly demonstrate that there are endless ‘freshers’ struggling to comprehend why their country-based relationship has fallen apart since they moved to the city, why their tutor is so hot, why relationships are so hard to come by when so many people are also looking for love, and why the hell they picked a course that makes them hate everything so much (and that course is always, always Biomed). The adults are no longer in charge, and these late teens and twenty-somethings are navigating a whole new world while they try to find an adultier-adult, a sense of purpose, or even just an appropriately tacky costume at Savers for their next residential college event.
Having seen both the professional production when it was last in Melbourne, and a high school version, what UMMTA’s version may have lacked in polish, it more than made up for in hitting the aesthetic on the head. There are of course at least two aesthetics at play in Legally Blonde: there’s the university level one involving things like experimental facial hair, and further development of a personal style at a time when you’re still judged and judging others by their covers (“and tatty books stay on the shelf” in Elle Wood’s world) but simultaneously care less. And in Legally Blonde there’s also the early-2000s class aesthetic, explored via multiple transformations throughout the show. Whilst the experimental facial hair aspect was put to good use, costuming throughout was a delight, and really added to characterisation and narrative. From the Greek Chorus’ mish-mash of white items with individual pops of late-90s neon, to the brown, beige and green ‘uniform’ of the “serious” Harvard law students, there was a sense of diversity within the unity of approach. And of course, Elle’s signature pink being muted to (an admittedly very chic) black and white number for her court outfit makes her eventual triumphant entrance in a hot pink pant suit all the more delightful: the story arc of Elle carving out her own place is made literally and figuratively visible.
We can also instantly tell that Paulette is kooky but lovely (Sparkles! Green! Floaty things!); Callahan is a baddy (slicked hair like something out of American Psycho and an uptight suit like something out of…well…American Psycho, if not taken from Billy Flynn in Chicago); Emmett is down-to-earth and lovely (scruffy but passable attempt at ‘lawyerly’ clothes, improved greatly by Elle’s shopping spree); and Kyle the UPS guy (Joshua Meadows) and Warner (Noah Szto) are H.O.T (short shorts and ‘check out my guns’ t-shirt + ‘intellectual’ glasses respectively). The only thing Elle’s Kath and Kel-esque parents lacked on their matching musk-coloured velour tracksuit numbers was an obscenely large JUICY written on the back. Even without that, we can tell they’re lovely, slightly nuts, and clearly have too much money. In short, clicks all round for the Costume team (Tom O’Sullivan, Christian Morabito and Francesco Morabito), boosted by spot-on hair and make-up (OMG you guys, I haven’t seen that many mini butterfly clips since the actual 90s).
But having been completely side-tracked by the costuming, I digress: reviewing a musical requires some actual discussion of the music itself. Just like for Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house, some things were hot, some cold, but a lot were juuuust right. From the very start, the Sorority Sisters/Greek Chorus (Madeline Connolly as Margot, Selena Nicastri as Kate, Meggyanne Davie-Smythe as Pilar, Olivia Jackson as Gaileen, Deanna-Rae Ciconte as Leilani, and the stand-out Ninna Aguire as Serena) squealed and swooped in enthusiastic unison, whilst also competently working their way through a solid bank of harmonies throughout the show. Ahila Navaratnam’s solo work as Vivienne in Act II was an unexpected delight, and it seemed a pity the role didn’t offer her more chances to sing. One benefit of having a Music faculty close by is the potential easy access to performers with solid legit belts: Selena Nicastri deserves a mention for this, but Asher Harrington as Paulette takes the (bone-shaped) cake for both her consistent diction and the maturity with which she handled Paulette’s solos.
Speaking of bones, the creative decision to have both Bruiser and Rufus appear in puppet form (wrangled by an enthusiastic Bronte Smeaton) was an inspired one, with hilarious results. The attention to physical comedy and visual gags throughout was in general another strength of the production, as well as the comic relief provided by crafting of smaller roles. In particular, Timma Katz’s Chutney sounded like Janis from Friends with a bad perm, Chris Dempsey was suavely confusing as Nikos, and Eloise Bagnara as Enid, sticking it to the phallocentric war machine. Combining good musical direction with effective stage use, it was a relief to hear Teresa Giansiracusa as Brooke not have to constantly belt through incessant skipping in ‘Whipped into Shape’. The decision to intersperse some of the heavier vocal load between the action meant this was the first time I’d seen this number performed without being concerned for the vocal health of the performers, whilst also still being impressed by the physicality of the number.
Opening night was somewhat marred by sound and lighting issues though. For most of the male performers in particular who weren’t as vocally strong (and this in itself is reminiscent of high school productions, where males are often in short supply and all enthusiastic applicants are generally welcomed with open arms), this did make it challenging to follow what was going on. Although mic issues were largely rectified at interval, there was a persistent imbalance with the orchestra, which may be harder to fix as the cast still need to be able to hear them clearly, but a venue of this size makes it hard to put gigantic foldback speakers at the front of the stage without impacting audience and stage use. The lighting design (Sebastian Miloradovic and Oliver Ross) was well intentioned and often very pretty, but did have some issues with capturing performer action adequately, which could be rectified with minor tweaks to rigging.
Something that was unexpectedly ‘just right’ about this production was in fact the use of stage space. In addition to creating additional entrance points and performance areas, partially through the use of solidly thought out, perfectly adequate sets (Max Bowyer, Iris Li, Demertrius Kiriakidis and mentor Milla Gentil), the choreography (Cassie Chappell and Georgia Margaux) was unexpectedly heart-warming. Whilst the realisation perhaps lacked the polish of other productions, there was an overarching enthusiasm and earnestness which greatly contributed to the successful aesthetic. It looked like real uni students dancing because it actually WAS real uni students – and they’re not all perfectly trained dancers.
But of utmost importance is the fact that Daisy-Rose Coppola and Joey Phyland were also just right for their roles. Coppola obviously felt at ease in role of Elle, the legally blonde girl with a heart of gold and a surprising strong feminist core. Her facial expressions were scene stealers – hard in a cast who were all so animated – and the physicality with which she embodied Elle was wonderfully entertaining, with Coppola seemingly revelling in the chance to play such an emotionally rich and empowering part. Sensitive and bold as necessary, both her vocals and diction were beautifully placed, and Coppola absolutely shone throughout. As the sweet and dependable Emmett, and vocally the strongest of the males, Phyland warmed through the first Act until really given the chance to stand out. Act II’s ‘Take it Like a Man’ and ‘Legally Blonde’ showcased naturalistic acting and well-prepared vocals, with a warmth in Phyland’s tone quality enhancing characterisation, and matching Coppola beautifully. Basically, you’d have to be a bonehead to not enjoy and appreciate the ‘bend and snap’ of the whole production, but it WILL be hard, if you don’t already have a ticket.
REVIEW by Calysta Morgan