Review by Donald Ernest
Since it first screened in 2001, Legally Blonde has been one of the most beloved films of the 21st century, and its subsequent musical adaptation in 2007 definitely delivered on the hype. Sunnybank Theatre Group’s 2022 production more than lives up to expectations, proudly playing to a sold out season.
Directed by Hayley Gervais in her debut directing effort, the musical tells the story of Elle Woods (Storm Fraser), a sorority princess who, after being cruelly dumped by her elitist boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Alexander Thanasoulis), decides to enrol in Harvard Law School in a misguided attempt to win him back. Along the way, she gains a sense of self importance, aided by the sympathetic Emmett Forest (Damien Quick) and her sometimes interior Greek Chorus (Emma Burridge, Georgina Walsh and Maegan Micola Von Furstenrecht). As she navigates the complicated world of Law School, Elle new-found self confidence is tested, finding herself on the defence council for fitness queen Brooke Wyndham (Tayler Ramsay). Can Elle do what’s right in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity?
One of the most impressive things about the production of Legally Blonde is its technical side. In an admittedly small theatre space, every inch feels well utilised. The set design, whilst relatively simple, is nonetheless vibrant and effective. In a cast of 20 (and two dogs), the stage never feels crowded. Hayley Gervais’s direction is excellent with very dynamic and energetic blocking helping to maintain a smooth sense of flow throughout. The lighting as well, designed by Gervais and stage manager Maddy Bosanko, adds to the show’s energy, blending well with the scenes on stage. Of particular note are some extremely impressive divisions where Elle is forced to separate from the background action into her own personal “space”. Costume design as well, handled by Justin Tubb-Hearne, Sophie McGrath and the cast, is well thought out and extremely creative, in particular Elle’s arrival at Harvard. The balance of colour to blandness is a source of subtle humour that is both hilarious and ingenious.
As Elle Woods, Storm Fraser is nothing short of exceptional. Elle, for as positive as she is, is a character filled with a very subtle depth that borders on tragedy at times, and Fraser handles these subtle emotions with an extremely genuine quality. Even whilst being ridiculed by her peers, Frasers Elle never feels like she is over exaggerating the character into pantomime. To say nothing of her vocal work which is extremely impressive throughout.
Running counter to Elle on equal sides is Alexander Thanasoulis and Damien Quick. Thanasoulis at times feels like he is trying to make himself as the hero of the story in the best way possible. Thanasoulis’s Warner is equal parts obnoxious and amusing in his self established grandeur. As his counter, Quick’s Emmett is the laid back straight man to Elle Woods’s energetic funny. As a genuinely kind hearted source of support to Elle, the performance always feels earned, never feeling forced in a way that could be seen as insincere.
Lisa Alsop as Paulette gives a performance that would make Fran Fine proud in the best way possible, delivering not only an extremely strong vocal performance but also a great sense of comedic timing, playing off not only Fraser but the machismo oozing Jonathan Taufatofua as UPS delivery man Kyle (one of several roles played by Taufatofua). As the ruthless and cold hearted Professor Callahan, Jason Lawson projects an aura and personality of calmness from experience: This is a man who has fully sold his soul to the devil and doesn’t care as much about the ethical standing of his clients as much as he does his winning record. Lawson should be applauded for the subtle ruthlessness of his characterisation.
As a whole, there are no weak links in the cast and everyone within has strong moments where they get to shine. Sophia Dimopoulos exudes pure attitude from the moment she walks on stage as Vivienne Kensignton with a cruelty at times that never feels forced. Likewise, Tayler Ramsay as Brooke Wyndham is a confident stage presence from the first moment she steps (or rather, skips on stage), never once slipping into the all too easy trap of trying to play confident as coldly tough.
At times, Elles greek chorus is a borderline scene stealer, in particular Georgina Walsh during the Bend & Snap number. Walsh commands the stage with a charisma from the beginning of the number, and her facial expressions throughout are amongst one of the strongest comedic elements of any number she’s a part of. Emma Burridge and Maegan Micola von Furstenrecht as well project a strong sense of comic timing that is delivered at a rapid fire pace that leaves the audience in stitches.
Sophie McGrath as Enid Hoopes portrays a character that so easily could have fallen into cliche with great comic timing in a way that it never feels stale and every laugh from her feels earned. Similarly the work of the previously mentioned Jonathan Taufotafua and Jo Burnett is hilarious, in particular the duos energetic duet during There! Right There! (Gay or European). Strong mention must also be made of Alicia Hellens and Mackenzie Kelly who at times give great hilarity through the subtlety. As little as a slight change in facial expression is enough to project a strong sense of character that always feels in character and in scene and is very welcome.
The choreography of the show is nothing short of exceptional. Choreographed by first time choreographer Madds Torrisi, there is strong influence of hip hop and cheerleading in a large amount of the routines, and it never feels repetitive or slow. Indeed, much of the energy from the show is on display in the choreography. Whipped into Shape in particular is an extremely creative and well executed masterclass in coordination, and Torrisi should be applauded for their work.
Music, likewise, is an impressive blend of a variety of styles, ranging from classic jazz to pop to Enya style celtic (of all things). The musical direction of Benjamin Tubb-Hearne is energetic and technically brilliant. At times it feels as though the instrumentals overpowers the vocals, especially in the first act of the performance, making it hard to distinguish what is being sung. However, the issue is quickly fixed in the latter half of the performance, where vocal turns by Alsop and Fraser, as well as one hell of a belt from Quick at the tale end of act one more than make up for it.
The cast and crew of Sunnybank Theatre Group’s production of Legally Blonde should be immensely proud of their work on this production, and the proof is definitely shown by the sold out season and an extremely lively opening night crowd. A production of this calibre bodes well for all involved, and is a performance that is definitely to be seen. Bravo!
Legally Blonde: The Musical will play to sold out crowds until 25 June. Fore more information please visit the Sunnybank Theatre Group website.