Savoy Theatre, London WC2
Opened 12 January, 2010

What is it with stage musicals of movies? Within the past year Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, Sister Act and now Legally Blonde have all taken feelgood flicks and assiduously crushed any particle other than feelgood out of them, jettisoning almost all the smarts of the original films and leaving a strip-cartoon version. Of course, the essential two-faced message of Legally Blonde remains in place: as we watch California fashionista Elle Woods follow her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School, be first humiliated then succeed on her own terms, we can tell ourselves we are wise enough not to judge by appearances... whereas the underlying values are exactly the opposite, that beauty does imply substance. In Jerry Mitchell’s West End production, there are two designated not-beautiful female characters: one is a lesbian, the other a murderess. But at least the two aren’t equated, as are gay and European in a second-act courtroom number.
Mitchell’s production, and the script, know exactly where to pitch themselves. The show includes not one but two dogs for us to go “Aaahh” at, and the biggest whoops of the evening (even bigger than those for the first appearances of Sheridan Smith and Duncan James, each stationary – whoo, they can stand!) go to a sub-Chippendale of a UPS parcel delivery guy. Instead of a personal essay, Elle presents the Harvard entry assessors with a cheerleading number; Brooke Wyndham. the keep-fit guru whom she defends on a murder charge, likewise gets a work-that-body routine, and as for the patented seduction tactic of “Bend And Snap”... you guessed it. One of the musical leitmotivs is a melodic progression close to the hook of The Bee Gees’ song “Words”, and indeed much of Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s score aspires to the condition of Saturday Night Fever: bouncy, whitish soul-disco.
Sheridan Smith is of course natural casting as Elle, bursting with musical and comedic talent, but I’m not sure she can pass for a freshman any more, even after a first college degree. As Professor Callahan, Peter Davison is similarly consummate (his stage musical chops are often under-appreciated), but bless him, he’ll never be a merciless, unscrupulous shark in anyone’s book. It’s all jolly, loud but for once not too loud, and affirmative, but as I say, we should look twice at exactly what we’re affirming. Oh, well, welcome to 21st-century values. Whoop!

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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