REVIEW: HHOS offers upbeat musical silliness with Legally Blonde

Olli Wells as Warner and Catherine Carpenter as Elle
Olli Wells as Warner and Catherine Carpenter as Elle

Legally Blonde The Musical, Haywards Heath Operatic Society, Clair Hall, April 25-29

It’s astonishing that such a fluffy, silly and largely formulaic rom-com is still so popular after 16 years.

Beckie Burtenshaw, Jennifer McLean and Anika Lefevre as Elle's friends

Beckie Burtenshaw, Jennifer McLean and Anika Lefevre as Elle's friends

But Legally Blonde, originally released as a mid-budget American movie in 2001, has an appeal that endures to this day.

The film’s sequel was pretty mediocre, but the original story was turned into a successful Broadway musical in 2007, winning many awards and spawning several international productions.

In 2010 the show found its way to the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End.

Now, it’s Haywards Heath’s turn and HHOS have delivered the goods.

The whole cast approach the material very professionally, singing, dancing and acting at a level far beyond what you might expect from an amateur production.

The behind-the-scenes team have clearly worked hard too, with director John Shepherd, choreographer Janis McLean and musical director Ian White making smart decisions that allow the show to work on a smaller stage.

The plot, for those few who are unfamiliar with this global phenomenon, revolves around an LA fashion student called Elle.

She’s the seemingly ditzy, blonde president of the University of California’s social society with an interest in tiny dogs, beauty products and pink clothes.

When her law student boyfriend Warner ditches her for someone more ‘serious’ Elle follows him to Harvard Law School.

Determined to win her man back, Elle manages to enrol as well and get on the same course.

At first Elle’s new classmates make fun of her. However, thanks to her timid but hard-working friend Emmett, Elle gradually develops a genuine passion and talent for law.

Things get serious when she’s asked to work on a high-profile murder case involving fitness entrepreneur Brooke Wyndham and things get even more serious when Emmett starts falling for Elle.

A tale like this is somewhat predictable, so whether it works or not depends on the strength of the characters and performances.

Thankfully, Catherine Carpenter is wonderful as Elle, bringing this bubbly, sassy but rather naive character to life with confidence and zest.

Presented by Catherine, it’s clear that Elle is ignorant but not stupid, oblivious to real-world concerns, but not out of any malice. She’s a sheltered, happy-go-lucky rich girl who’s never had to deal with the cut-throat legal field or an environment as disciplined as Harvard.

Harry Simpson is also strong as Emmett, portraying a young man whose tough upbringing has taught him the value of hard work, but sapped him of self-confidence. It’s satisfying when Elle helps him find a new look and a sense of courage.

Olli Wells plays a rather egotistical and smarmy Warner at first. But as the plot unfolds, without explicitly saying it, Olli shows how Warner comes to respect Elle and realise how much he’s underestimated her.

Holly Ashcroft presents a good, catty rival for Elle in the form of Warner’s new love-interest Vivienne, but, like Warner, she eventually softens towards her.

Vivienne’s initial hostility also seems grounded in reality. After all, she’s a conscientious student whose classroom is rudely invaded by a girl who seems more interested in lip-gloss than doing her reading.

There are peppy supporting performances from Beckie Burtenshaw, Jennifer McLean and Anika Lefevre as Elle’s sorority girlfriends who show up as a ‘Greek chorus’ that only Elle can see.

Hannah Gardner also does well as the tough-minded fitness guru Brooke.

However, perhaps the strongest female supporting performance comes from Debbie McLean as Paulette Buonafonte, Elle’s newfound hairdresser friend.

Speaking with a believable East Coast accent, ridiculously obsessed with Irish men and inept at the art of seduction, Paulette’s a joy to watch.

Her (occasionally disastrous) interactions with hunky delivery boy Kyle (a very tongue-in-cheek performance from Antony Cannizzaro) are very funny.

My favourite male supporting performance belongs to Bill Kirwan as Elle’s ruthless teacher Professor Callahan.

He does a great job of portraying a cold, calculating shark of a man – sharply dressed, amoral and blessed with a nasal, no-nonsense voice like Howard Cosell.

Legally Blonde isn’t without problems, of course.

The story is pretty ridiculous and Elle’s triumph comes to her very easily. The female empowerment angle is also undermined a bit by Elle’s rich father paying for her to carry out her kooky plan.

But, hey, it’s a comedy and it’s obviously the kind of tale that encourages you to suspend your disbelief from the start.

Overall then, HHOS offer a colourful, light-hearted production with excellent singing, good comic timing and plenty of upbeat energy.

And, for animal lovers, there’s even a couple of cute dogs in the show.

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