All over Manchester, this week, you’ll see the faces of Gareth Gates and Jennifer Ellison peering down from posters advertising the return engagement of Legally Blonde at the Opera House. Since this is, of course, the stage version of the Reece Witherspoon sorority-babe-goes-t0-law-school movie, you might reasonably assume that Ms. Ellison – a bubbly blonde musical theatre actress whose wider fame is based on the five years she spent in the Liverpudlian TV soap Brookside – is playing the central role of Elle Woods, the titular blonde who enrols in Harvard Law School in order to win back her man, but ends up finding herself instead.
You might also reasonably assume that Mr. Gates – a reality TV contestant turned pop star turned musical theatre actor – is playing the largest male role, teaching assistant Emmett Forrest (the Luke Wilson role in the film).
You might further assume, on entering the theatre, purchasing a programme, and reading these two actors’ magnificently pompous (not to mention l o n g) programme bios, that you are in the presence of stars the like of which you have never seen before, gifted individuals who can hold the audience in the palms of their hands, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and make the lame walk again. Mr. Gates, apparently, “was awarded Best International Male in 2003/4 from MTV Asia, MTV China and MTV Taiwan”, while Ms. Ellison, after appearing in Dancing on Ice, “proved so popular that she went on to skate her way around the country on the national tour.”
Gosh. And nope.
The real leads – Faye Brookes as Elle Woods (she’s local, born in Flixton) and Iwan Lewis as Emmett – are both young, only a few years out of drama school, and very, very winning indeed. Ms. Brookes has a strong pop voice, an easy charm, and sharp comic timing; if she doesn’t quite have the effortless star quality that the wonderful Sheridan Smith brought to the role in London (yes, this is not my first time seeing the show), she also, thank God, doesn’t emulate the unpleasantly robotic performance given by Laura Bell Bundy in the telecast of the Broadway production. Mr. Lewis is even better – he’s got charm, presence, timing, a great voice, and he can act. But, oops, neither of them have yet done a soap or a reality TV show, so they don’t get their faces on the posters. That’s showbiz, folks.
The show itself is… well, the kindest description is ‘passably OK’. It’s a solid, professional effort, and it plays well enough, even in this slimmed-down touring version. The musical and lyrics (by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin – both did both) are attractive and entertaining, but never much more than that, and Heather Hach’s book, give or take a few minor alterations, is a by-the-numbers retread of the source film’s screenplay. There’s effective but never quite show-stopping choreography by Jerry Mitchell, bright costumes by Gregg Barnes, appropriately gaudy lighting by Kenneth Posner and Paul Miller, and the remnants of what was, in London and on Broadway, a terrific cartoonish set by David Rockwell. Broadway and London got 3D buildings and an actual staircase; the provinces get slightly cheaper tickets, a much smaller band, and painted flats instead of moving set pieces. It does say something for the show itself that it still works in a less elaborate production.
It’s not that I expect greatness every time I go to the theatre, but this is not a great musical, or even a particularly good one. It’s fun, but that’s not the same thing. It’s never bad, it’s always entertaining, but there is never, even for one second, any sense of what prompted the original producers and creative team to try and turn the source film into a musical. There’s a kind of effortless magic to a really good musical comedy, and it’s absent here (although Sheridan Smith, in the London production, managed to go a long way towards providing the spark that’s been missing from other incarnations of the show – really, whatever they paid her, it wasn’t enough). It’s a good-enough, entertaining-enough diversion with a wholesome message about self-empowerment, but that’s all.
So do this touring production’s two above-the-title supporting players supply the missing element of magic? It’d be lovely if they did, but no, they don’t. Ms. Ellison plays Paulette, the beauty-salon proprietor who becomes Elle’s friend and confidante (and, oh yes, falls for a hunky UPS delivery guy), and she’s perfectly OK. She sings well, dances well, gets laughs in all the right places, but this isn’t a star cameo, it’s a decent-enough supporting performance. She is, though, better than Mr. Gates, who plays Warner, the slimy ex Elle follows to law school. Admittedly, in the musical, it’s a bit of a nothing role, but Mr. Gates brings nearly nothing to it. He hits his notes and his marks, and preens on cue, but he’s neither charismatic nor funny (odd, since he managed to be both in Loserville at the West Yorkshire Playhouse earlier this year).
If all of this sounds like I had a terrible time, I didn’t. I’d seen it before, I knew what I was paying for, I had a discount code, and I was entertained, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with going to the theatre looking for empty calories every once in a while. Given the relative thinness of the writing, a bit more glitz (in the form of the bulkier set pieces that are missing from this incarnation of the show) might have been nice, but the show worked well enough without them. As I said, it’s a solid, professional, entertaining piece of work – it’s just that whenever I watch this show, or listen to the cast recording, I can’t shake the feeling that it should be better than it is.