Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
When I walked into Hart House Theatre the other night, I worried that perhaps I should have packed dental floss for the treacle I expected to find in Legally Blonde: the Musical. A fuchsia set dominated the enormous stage. Peppy 90s female singers were being piped through the sound system. With visions of a colour palette ranging from cotton candy to Double Bubble and Pepto Bismol – and a similarly narrow thematic and emotional range – I steeled myself.
Unexpectedly, I found myself delighted by a warm, buoyant and energetic production, ably directed by Saccha Dennis. I’ve admired her work at Young People’s Theatre and in the current Toronto production of Come From Away, so I was curious about her interpretation of the play. And clearly, I shouldn’t have worried. Based on the enthusiastic whoops, hollers, and cheers from the sold-out audience on opening night, this production of Legally Blonde: the Musical will strike a chord popular, especially with families.
Legally Blonde: the Musical is based on the hit 2001 comedy film, Legally Blonde. The story follows California golden girl Elle Woods (Emma Sangalli), who is preparing for a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (John Carr-Cook). He blindsides her by ending the relationship in order to find a more serious girl at Harvard Law School to support his political ambitions. Following the advice of her UCLA Delta Nu sorority sisters, Elle (who is studying Fashion Merchandising) gains admission to the same law program. Fully accessorized and with dog Bruiser in tow, she follows him to Harvard to win him back.
Part of this production’s success lies in Dennis’ choice of actors who shine in their respective roles. Moulan Bourke is utterly winning as Elle’s friend Paulette the manicurist, who is overcoming her own heartaches while dreaming of a step-dancing Irish lovegod to sweep her off her feet. Elle’s trio of friends Margot (Paige Foskett), Serena (Émilie Macaulay), and Pilar (Tama Martin) form a high-octane, sequin-sporting Supremes-like Greek chorus that gives Elle advice, encouragement, validation – and rhythm. The show hinges on the proper casting of Elle, of course. Play her too frivolous, and the transformation from fashionista to lawyer smacks of cartoonish implausibility. Too smart or sharp, and her growing self-awareness and self-confidence lack credibility. The show’s earworm pop songs by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin also requires an energetic performer who can carry the tunes with upbeat vitality while revealing this burgeoning self-sufficiency. Sangalli strikes just the right balance of sweet and hopeful – with a hint of sass and savvy – to be believable as a carefree undergraduate who thinks she has her life figured out, then pivots to becoming a lawyer and learning what she is truly made of.
The show’s staging echoes Elle’s journey. The aforementioned two-level fuchsia set serves as various locations, with modular sets in the shape of titled books being wheeled on, then opened to reveal additional elements of specific locations. It’s clever, visual and supports the academic setting and the larger theme of Elle writing her own narrative. Greg Carruthers’ high-spirited choreography makes the most of Hart House Theatre’s sizable stage. Of note is the inspired blend of athleticism in his composition of “Whipped Into Shape” where we meet the accused murderer Brooke (Amy Holden), a fitness entrepreneur whose trial provides Elle the opportunity to prove her prowess. This is a fast-paced show, without much time to level the energy or emotions, and the cast maintains this pace without flagging. This means several actors juggling multiple roles require multiple costume changes – and places major demands on Sangalli, who is consistently dynamic and winning as the focal point of several elaborate numbers. The songs are well-performed, but on the night I attended, the sound favoured the instruments, so the lyrics were often difficult to make out over the louder accompaniment. Hopefully, this imbalance will be rectified over the course of the run.
Overall, the female characters fare better in this story than the males, except Emmett Forrest (Ethan Vasquez Taylor), the unprivileged teaching assistant who becomes Elle’s mentor. In the end, this is a story of female friendships and solidarity, so the men are cartoonish catalysts for female pushback. While it’s hard to posit the 90s-set Legally Blonde as a feminist parable, some moments ring eerily current. The appearance-conscious Elle gets a lesson in sexism when her professor (Brian Vaughan) takes advantage of his position to make an advance. And while Warner responds dismissively, his fiancée (and Elle’s rival) Vivienne (Autumn-Joy Dames) believes and stands by Elle in a moment that resonates strongly. On the surface, Elle’s story wants to counter the notion of judging a book by its cover. But this intent is undercut by the jokes aimed at lesbian law student Enid’s (Chelsea Jayne Bray) appearance, Elle’s department-store makeover of Emmett, and Paulette’s tactical use of her innate “bend-and-snap” talent.
All that said, Legally Blonde: the Musical is a fun, frothy, feel-good celebration of female friendships and brains-over-blonde tropes. In Dennis’ hands, this spirited tale of the unlikely triumph of a well-manicured protagonist delivers plenty of laughter and heart. She has made the most of the material – and her excellent cast – to highlight the show’s relevance, maximize its entertainment value, and help us all come around to embracing pink as the new navy blue.
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What: Legally Blonde: the Musical | Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin | Book by Heather Hach | Based on the novel by Amanda Brown and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture | Musical Direction by Giustin MacLean | Choreography by Gregory Carruthers | Set Design by Holly Meyer-Dymny | Costume Design by Kathleen Black | Lighting Design by David DeGrow | Sound Design by Jason Cabanaw | Fight Direction by Nate Bitton | Directed by Saccha Dennis
Cast: Emma Sangalli, Paige Foskett, Émilie Macaulay, Tama Martin, Ethan Vasquez Taylor, Moulan Bourke, John Carr-Cook, Brian Vaughan, Autumn-Joy Dames, Amy Holden, Chelsea Jayne Bray, Rae Bernakevitch, Matthew Dolgin, Connor Ferris, Christoph Ibrahim, Aidan Morris, Rachel Mundy, Davis Okey-Azunnah, Robert Popoli, Jillian Robinson, Noah Tremblay, Kukas Vernon
Band: Giustin MacLean, Stephan Ermel, Iain Leslie, Erik Larson, Pieter Huyer, Michael Henley, Charlotte Alexander, Dennis Kwok, Micaela Morey
When: On stage until February 1, 2020; Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 King’s College Circle, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: HartHouse.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020