FringeReview UK 2018
Directed and choreographed by Anthony Williams (Dean Street co-choreographs) for Martin Dodd UK Productions. Elizabeth Dennis designs the costumes. Jon Harris, Jason Bishop and David Shields design with Nev Milsom’s lighting. James McCullach’s music direction and band is amplified Christopher Bogg’s sound system. Till june 16th.
This really is special. Six years after another good version of Legally Blonde solidly fulfilled expectations at Brighton’s Theatre Royal this production blows any previous memories away. Everything’s exceptional: from the leads Lucie Jones in particular as Elle Woods and Rita Simons’ Paulette Bonafonté to the extraordinary costumes, set changes and overall cast and production standards, directed and choreographed by Anthony Williams (Dean Street co-choreographs). Martin Dodd UK Productions have pulled everything out. It’s no cut-down touring version.
Elizabeth Dennis has designed some breathtaking costumes on occasion, the most tantalising being the costume change half-way through the curtain call. It’s that extraordinary. You’ll have to see yourself what Dennis comes up with.
Vivacious West Coast beauty Elle Woods, jilted by her law-school bound snobby boyfriend swats and follows him east from LA to Harvard Law School, snubbed but helped by new eventual love interest Emmett Forrest (the excellent, ardent David Barrett) and Simons’ hairdresser Paulette. And encounters the sharky Professor Callaghan (Bill Ward, a finely villainous turn, one who can dance and most of all sing with an incisive rasp veiled with urbanity). One the way she rescues her new friend’s dog – and there’s two live ones on stage though not together!
And of course Elle’s great break defending fellow LA Sorority girl Helen Petrovna’s fit-focused Brooke Wyndham with her whip-crack number extending to penitentiary (a striking backdrop used as a shadow to court proceedings, a nice trope). Petrovna’s versatile and incisive, one to watch. Elle scents out a lying witness by using her charms, counter-intuitively. And if you don’t know her coup, it’s worth waiting for the OTT treatment here. All the numbers come fresh and blowy, from OMG through to its reprise in the closing medley.
The keyword is fun. I’ve never seen so much humour in this musical (or many others), which extends most of all to the cast and particularly Jones who’s quite exceptional in her soprano range extending a laugh with her operatic voice. She’s not just piercingly fine: Jones’ voice is individual with a ringing top clear of anyone else; and she’s a delirious comic actor, able to integrate that with her singing. Another great character is Simons’ Paulette with her singing, and equally strong comic instincts.
Everything tends to comedy, every inflection and choreographed move. At one point two blind cupids pass each other in shades downstage, Felipe Bejarano and Connor Collins; and at another the same actors, two gay men in the murder trial, try a pas de deux with a brief snatch of Swan Lake (Matthew Bourne style). Even the skipping routine when Elle’s imagined sorority girls join in lamely skipping (the ropes turn fluorescent blue in a latter routine) they’re designed to trip us with wit and false moves. It’s impossible to do these justice but such highlights might give a tincture of flavour.
The design too has several witty styles from the storyboard canvas houses and Harvard parkland backdrop, to interiors with flashing lights (Nev Milsom, often inventive lighting) to details of law school classrooms, beauty parlours, law courts, a trash trailer, and Elle’s room. There’s clearly a happy heterogeneous mix so when you see Jon Harris, Jason Bishop and David Shields all listed as designers it’s not too surprising. The details of dry ice puffing up the sky backdrops and sheer velocity of scene changes points to a high integrated whizz of sets.
James McCullach’s music direction is brisk, vivid and full of panache – Christopher Bogg’s sound system keeps it clear and not too brash.
There’s fine work too from the luckless ex, Liam Doyle’s moochy Warren, his new fiancée Laura Harrison’s chilly but ultimately warm Vivienne. There’s a host of finely-realized cameos too: Ben Harlow as Paulette’s impossibly towering love interest, Mark Peachey as Elle’s dad, the joyous Sorority trio Rebecca Stenhouse, Rachel Grundy, Delycia Belgrave, and Nancy Hill, Rosie Needham (beautifully screechy as Chutney in the trial), the flailingly camp stenographer Michael Hamway, and Elle’s mum Lucyelle Cliffe.
Sally Frith, Alexandra Wright, Brett Shiels, Laura Mullowney and Craig Tyler complete a cast where there’s so much detail worked out that you know there’s little justice served except by exhorting you to see this.
Apart from the heroic production itself, if there’s one outstanding performer it has to be Jones with Simons’ superb support. Jones’ voice is stunning, stratospheric, above all characterful. She’ll go far further into the classics of music theatre at this rate.