Lucy Moss’ production for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre clearly demonstrates that even the most phenomenal casting can only take you so far
A lot has changed socially since Elle Woods first hit public consciousness in 2001. With the advent of social media and strides being made towards greater diversity, today’s Harvard looks thoroughly less white, privileged and male than in Reese Witherspoon’s now-iconic film. This is a fact that has by no means passed director Lucy Moss by, keen to make her Legally Blonde far more diverse in its casting decisions, presenting a far more inclusive story. However, the underlying message of Legally Blonde, despite the social changes occurring around it, is concerned with the importance of not judging based upon appearances or stereotype and embracing yourself regardless of how the world around you treats you and this is just as relevant as it ever was.
Legally Blonde hit the Broadway stage in 2007, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hatch. Initially starring Laura Bell Bundy, Legally Blonde earned seven Tony Award nominations but no wins and failed to recoup – closing after 18 months. Subsequently, however, the show has gained more cult popularity, owing to its filmed MTV performance. The West End production, featuring Sheridan Smith and Duncan James in its original cast, ran from 2009 – 2012 and won Three Olivier Awards, including Best Actress in a Musical and Best New Musical.
Reimagining Legally Blonde as Gen Z is surprisingly easy to conceptualise – it is easy to picture Elle Woods and her sorority sisters going viral on TikTok and meticulously planning the best Instagram engagement strategy. If anything, obsession with public appearance has only become more pressured since Reese Witherspoon’s Elle was derided by Warner for not being serious enough. Who better to tackle this reimagined story than Lucy Moss, the co-director behind feminist-heavy phenomenon Six? For those wishing that Moss’s iteration of the musical will be “So Much Better”, they may well find themselves sorely disappointed.
Legally Blonde, like the film that it is based on, follows the tale of Elle Woods (an aggressively watchable Courtney Bowman) who, upon being unexpectedly dumped by boyfriend Warner (a slimy, limp and patronising Alistair Toovey) determines to follow him to Harvard Law School to prove that she can be serious enough to earn his love. Along the way, Elle discovers her own aptitude for law and starts to discover her own self-worth, proving that her femininity needn’t be sacrificed in order to achieve professional competence or fulfilment.
The performances on offer are simply astounding. Bowman is captivating as Elle, conveying multitudes of emotion with simple glances, able to deliver comedy and drama with ease, as well as impressively powering through all manner of vocal acrobatics. Other standouts include the gymnastic powerhouse Lauren Drew, who makes a vast impression in Act 2 opener “Whipped Into Shape” and Nadine Higgin breathes nuanced life into Paulette – a character who is very easy to make a caricature and may just steal the show.
Elle’s imaginary Greek Chorus consisting of Hannah Yun Chamberlain, Isaac Hesketh and Grace Mouat bring incredible energy to the stage and are brilliantly watchable, and Michael Ahomka-Lindsay’s Emmett is painted in far more shades than previous portrayals. The only slight disappointment amongst the selection is Eugene McCoy, who doesn’t seem to possess the necessary gravitas to portray the formidable Callahan.
Despite the obvious talent of the entire cast, it always feels as if they are succeeding in spite of the rest of the production instead of everything working in concert. Simply put, they are dwarfed by a stage that lacks purpose, focus and looks cheap. Designed by Laura Hopkins, the multi-layer set never really impresses. A small hydraulic heart-shaped platform does not make up for uninspiring curtains that resemble Elle’s blond locks and do not seem to enhance scenes at all. Performers frequently looked lost on an empty stage, with limited props and markers to capture the audience’s attention.
Performing for an outdoor venue is by no means an easy task, but when compared to other Open Air Theatre productions, such as Carousel, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music or Little Shop of Horrors, Legally Blonde‘s offering looks cheap and it looks lazy. There is very little creatively satisfying about watching clothes racks or benches being wheeled through an assortment of cascading blonde braids. When utilising the higher platform, the cast also felt ridiculously far away and removes audience members from the immediacy of the experience, making the show feel more like a concert than it did a piece of theatre.
Act 2 certainly fares better than Act 1 at directing the audience’s attention, as nighttime hours allow for Philip Gladwell’s lighting design to more heavily feature and give a hint at what this production could have been in a more typical space. While certainly adding a fresh energy, this can hardly be excused considering that Legally Blonde forms part of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2022 Summer Season so the presence of daylight during performances should have played a major part in the planning process and lighting should not be relied upon to focus the audience’s attention on particular areas of the behemoth staging. The show seems to rely upon typical theatricality without adapting to suit the Open Air Theatre’s unique space and challenges.
Similar to the individual performances, Ellen Kane’s choreography is dynamic and inspired, but it also gets lost. The costumes are interesting, especially with the transition to Harvard Law, with the rest of the law students’ muted tones perfectly emphasising Elle’s divergence from the status quo. There were times, however, where it felt like these elements of fashion were a little too avant garde for the portrayed Harvard and didn’t feel like some of these choices made sense contextually. There also seemed to be some discrepancy in era, as some characters appeared to be dressed for 2022 and others for the early noughties.
Ultimately, if one is fond of the music of Legally Blonde, then you are bound to have a good time, but other than the beautifully diverse and inspired casting, this production doesn’t enhance or uplevel the production from where it was more than a decade ago. It does not utilise Open Air Theatre to its fullest potential and this severely undermines the phenomenal cast.
Legally Blonde is performing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 2 July 2022