“It is a joy ride, although it does sometimes feel like you’re riding on a bus full of teenagers”
So where exactly did the stereotype originate? The Blonde Stereotype that is. Negative (‘dumb blonde’) or otherwise (‘blonde bombshell’), the perception of blonde-haired women has ignored the lack of evidence that suggests that blondes are less intelligent than other people. The first recorded ‘dumb blonde’ appeared in a French play in 1775; “Les Curiosités de la Foire’. She was dumb in the literal sense in that she didn’t talk much. Since then, blondes have had more fun, gentlemen have preferred them, and Hitchcock has fetishized them.
In 2001, writer Amanda Brown wrote about her experience as a blonde at Stanford Law School in various letters to friends which later became a novel and the box office success that was “Legally Blonde”. The musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, opened on Broadway in 2007 to mixed reviews. It’s West End run, starring Sheridan Smith, won three Olivier Awards, including Best Actress in a Musical for Smith.
The temptation is strong to focus on the possible relevance the story might have in today’s society. It is a cliché to state that times have certainly changed since the narrative themes burst forth into our consciousness. But it is safe to say that Lucy Moss’ staging is as self-aware as it can possibly be. Moss, riding on the global success “Six”, brilliantly uses the opportunity to satirise pretty much every stereotype possible. Nobody is safe. But what is extraordinary under her direction is the sheer sense of fun she brings to the production.
“Six” alumni Courtney Bowman commands the stage as the central character, Elle. Heartbroken after being dumped by her boyfriend Warner (Alistair Toovey) for not being serious enough, she decides she can win him back by showing she can achieve the same ambitions in the legal profession as him. In a plot line that loses touch with any form of credibility, she is accepted into the law school, rises high against odds and prejudices and eventually surpasses Warner. Along the way, everybody is put in their place, including misogynist law professors, jealous perjurers, closet gays. In fact, the characters who come out on top are the underdogs. The seemingly vacuous who ultimately reveal more depth than those who mock them.
Despite being hindered by a predominantly unmemorable score, the show still wins us over with its anergy and infectious comedy. And a couple of musical delights. The wit of O’Keefe and Benjamin’s lyrics shine through in particular during “Serious”, “Blood in the Water” and “Gay or European” which is surely the highlight of the night. It is miraculous how the words are sung so clearly with tongues so firmly set in the cheek. Homophobia, jingoism, and a whole host of other ‘isms’ are shot to the ground in a joyous few minutes of musical theatre snap, crackle and pop. Act Two opener, “Whipped Into Shape” showcases Ellen Kane’s slick choreography, pushing the all singing, all dancing ensemble to the limit.
“Legally Blonde” retains its comedy and loses none of its subversiveness in this brash and thoroughly camp production at Regents Open Air Theatre. It is a joy ride, although it does sometimes feel like you’re riding on a bus full of teenagers. Whilst there is little room for subtlety against the backbeat and spectacle, the current MT trend to introduce a Disney, cartoon-like, nasal shrillness to the delivery does grate over a couple of hours. But it’s worth it to reach the happy ending, buoyed up by the feel-good sensations that bounce the evening along.
“The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.”
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): disappointed by someone or something previously respected or admired; disillusioned. Synonyms include; let down, fed up, cynical, disabused. There is no question as to who the ‘someone or something’ singled out in Dennis T. Giacino’s “Disenchanted! A New Musical Comedy” is, and its subversive twist on the Disney fairy tale marketing machine, if not new, is a delight to watch. The swipes at the established misogynism, racism and many other ‘isms’ inbuilt into the portrayal of our favourite princesses are much needed, and Giacino has dressed them in pastiche melodies and some ingeniously clever and witty lyrics. It could do with perhaps more subtlety and less preachiness and bitterness, but the energy and gung-ho feistiness of all involved will appeal to all genders and persuasions.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, some artistic decisions for this current digital revival make for awkward viewing, for the wrong reasons. ‘Digital’ is the key word. This is inherently a musical that needs to be witnessed live, in the flesh, a few sheets to the wind, in like-minded company. We, the audience, are being heckled and cajoled by these comic geniuses and we should be simultaneously shamed and charmed. It is cabaret at its finest. We should be ‘loving it!’. But, rather than challenging preconceptions, this version challenges our patience.
In the original Off-Broadway run in 2014 there is a wonderful moment midway through – a gorgeous swipe at the Disney franchise. The ‘Princess who Kissed the Frog’ sings “Why’d it take ‘em so long to give a sister a song… ‘cause I am that storybook princess that’s fin’lly gone black”. Giacino’s point is that it wasn’t until 2009 when, for the first time in animation history, the fairest of them all was black. Director Tom Jackson Greaves’ decision to introduce such diversity into the casting of ‘Disenchanted’ way before this moment lets the joke fall somewhat flat.
Overall, the irreverence of the material is dampened by the exaggerated gaiety of the cast. And the hue-changing green screen backdrop distracts instead of being a neutral backdrop to the colourful characters. It takes an effort not to be snagged by these grating hurdles, but for those who make the effort to overcome them there is some reward. There is a very fine line up of performers indeed. Led by Jodie Steele’s ‘Snow White’ and aided by side kicks Allie Daniel (Sleeping Beauty) and Sophie Isaacs (Cinderella) we are guided through a series of vignettes in which various princesses are summoned to sing their way through their dissatisfactions and parody the princess culture. Highlights include Grace Mouat’s ‘Pocahontas’ (a character hitherto homogenised by the entertainment industry willing to distort her true Native-American story purely to sell cinema tickets) who sardonically sings that she “looks like a porn star”. Jenny O’Leary, as ‘Rapunzel’, brilliantly bemoans the total absence of royalties she receives from the global merchandising of her name in a Kurt Weill inspired number. And Courtney Bowman’s scathing but catchy diatribe against Middle Eastern misogyny is inspired.
There is a tenuous thread running through the musical numbers, reinforced by the repeated #princesscomplex hashtag. The messages are clear, but even now becoming a bit dated; and the balance between spite and humour aren’t always weighed up fully. Its intended audience is clear too, but the delivery is confused and awkward, like the shady, disenchanted state of limbo an adolescent might feel: too old for the youth club but too young for the pub.
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): it lives up to its definition. The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.