by John Lombard
Canberra Philharmonic Society
Erindale Theatre, 22 August 2019
Canberra Philo’s Legally Blonde is a delight, with vibrant characters, catchy songs and goofy laughs.
And if that’s not enough, it has dogs.
When blonde Malibu sorority sister Elle Woods (Charlotte Gearside) is dumped by her success-seeking boyfriend Warner (Patrick Galen-Mules), she follows him to Harvard Law School to win back his love.
This fish-out-of-water story delivers a funny clash of cultures, with the pink-frocked and friendly Elle bouncing off the grungy and ambitious prodigies of Harvard.
Assured direction by Jim McMullen gives the actors room to breathe and put their own stamp on the characters, humanising the stereotypes. This hint of realism grounded the drama, and made the moments of surreal whimsy stand out more.
Charlotte Gearside is a perfect Elle, apparently vapid but with oceanic wisdom. A lot of the humour comes from watching Elle outsmart smug snobs, like Bugs Buffy in pink. In one highlight, Elle flips a cruel prank with just a pair of glasses, showing her quick wit and hidden depth. Gearside played up both sides of the character to the delight of the audience.
Patrick Galen-Mules does not play ex-boyfriend Warner as a scumbag, but rather as ambition-giddy from family pressure. Instead, we saw Warner’s character decay, becoming increasingly sullen and aggressive as the play went on. His chemistry with Gearside is fantastic, with a relaxed physical rapport that made them a plausible couple.
Nick Valois gave Elle’s mentor/love interest Emmett down-to-earth practicality and sang with longing, but the romance with Elle was not convincing. He felt more like her responsible teacher than a like-minded ally.
Elle is not repulsed by Warner or hungry for Emmett, which undermined the romantic subplot. This could be because for most of the play Elle and Emmett are framed as buddies, not leaving enough stage time for their romance. At the end of the play, I wanted Elle and Warner to get back together.
Veteran actor Ian Croker characterises the ruthless Professor Callahan effectively, but was more of an ambulance chaser than a corporate shark. I could not believe that this leering villain ran a billion dollar law firm. His delivery was also noticeably slurred compared to the crisp articulation of the rest of the cast.
As the set designer, Croker delivered a well-engineered pastel daydream, actor-friendly with detail and personality.
Hannah Maurice won the audience’s heart as hairdresser and love guru Paulette, while Liam Jones stole the show in a comic cameo as a sexy deliveryman, upstaging even pups Ivy and Winston.
Of particular note in this show were the excellent costumes by Chelsea de Raay & Jill McMullen. This is a play where clothes are very important: we first see Elle’s smarts when someone tries to con her over an outfit, pink is a political statement, and character change is always shown with a change in wardrobe. This team rose to the challenge with costumes that perfectly captured character, whether the spring break vibrancy of the Delta Nu girls or the academic battledress of the Harvard students. In one magnificent flourish, when the Delta Nu girls emerge as a Greek chorus, each character wears their signature outfit, now bleached sparkling white.
As diverting as Legally Blonde is, it is neurotic about hard work: obsessive over-achiever Enid (Meaghan Stewart) is not taken seriously, but Elle skipping a family Thanksgiving to study is noble sacrifice. Emmett goes on about the chip on his shoulder, but the hungry drive of the other students is sinister. The play hints that ambition is noble when it is in the service of others, but this doesn’t fully pay off: Elle becomes the saviour not of the poor and vulnerable, but of the fabulously wealthy. Perhaps after law school Elle works as a public defender, but we never see that full realisation of her character’s kindness.
With eclectic songs, impish humour, and lots of heart, Legally Blonde is more than bubble-gum entertainment: a valedictorian of a production.