Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Reviewed – 24th May 2022
“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.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 2nd July
Last show reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 24th November 2020
“At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second”
The story behind the inception and eventual opening of “Rent” twenty-five years ago is almost worthy of a musical in itself. Waiting on tables in Manhattan ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ neighbourhood amid the homelessness, punks, addicts and drag queens, young composer Jonathan Larson sweated through the nights writing hundreds of songs, most of which wouldn’t make it to the final cut. When it finally reached its premiere, it attracted press attention on account of opening night falling exactly one hundred years after Puccini’s “La Bohème”, on which “Rent” is loosely based. Leaving the offices of The New York Times, Larson was upbeat, enjoying the dizziness of first night nerves. But that dizziness was concealing a misdiagnosed condition. Larson never made it to the theatre that evening.
Over quarter of a century later Larson’s legacy still continues to burst with energy each time it is revived on the stage. The Hope Mill Theatre’s production is no exception with its intimate and raw staging that is fresh and unique while still remaining faithful to the qualities that powered its original success on Broadway. It’s been a tough journey for the creative team. Scheduled to run this summer, lockdown pushed that back to October, only for it to close after five nights. But before the theatre went dark again it was captured on film by the innovative film company ‘The Umbrella Rooms’ and can now be seen online for a limited period.
The show’s raggle-taggle narrative centres on the tangle of mangled romantic friendships, telling the story of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and avoid eviction; particularly aspiring film maker, Mark, and his song-writer flatmate Roger, who is struggling to complete his ‘one great song’. Characterisation and plot may spend most of the time in the wings, but it is the music that grabs the spotlight, and the fiery dynamism that the cast bring onto the stage. During production, the cast all lived together in a (very noisy) twelve-bedroom house, and the chemistry, conviction and commitment that this would generate clearly shows. Nobody ever leaves the stage, and when not directly in the thick of it the cast watch from the shadows, still acting and reacting.
At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second; turbo charged by Musical Director Chris Poon and his pumping five-piece rock band; and Tom Jackson Greaves’ sawtooth sharp choreography. There are a lot of numbers in this show and the cast are on a mission to get through them all. The breathlessness gives way to moments of humour, which in turn bleed into the sad songs, which is where the true emotional kick is felt. Dom Hartley-Harris, as the vagabond anarchist Tom Collins, cuts the atmosphere, and your heart, with a knife during the beautiful ‘I’ll Cover You’ at the funeral of his lover, Angel; powerfully played by the velvet-voiced Alex Thomas-Smith. Millie O’Connell is wonderfully eccentric as experimental performance artist, Maureen, who meets her match in lover Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) during the wonderful ‘Take Me or Leave Me’. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s Mimi commands the space with a sassy swagger weighed down by vulnerability and addiction, while Ahmed Hamad relishes his Ebenezer arc from bad guy to good as Benny. This is a show where the chorus is as crucial as the principals, and the vast array of talent is on clear display throughout. Featured ensemble Kayla Carter, for example, bursts through into the foreground with stunning, soaring vocals during ‘Seasons of Love’, the anthemic opener to the second act.
Central to the story are the joint protagonists, Mark and Roger. Blake Patrick Anderson’s performance illuminates the stage, extremely comfortable and assured with complete control of the soaring notes he aims so high for. Tom Francis is equally memorable as the more brooding songsmith, Roger, eventually finding his muse in Mimi. As he sings the achingly beautiful ‘Your Eyes’ we wonder if it is all too late.
“Rent” is the real Fairy Tale of New York. Exhilarating and poignant. Over a quarter of a century old but still as fresh and timely as ever. “How do you measure a year in a life?” asks the lyrics in the iconic ‘Seasons of Love’. A lot of us are asking how we can measure this past year of ours. Whatever conclusion we make, “Rent” is certainly a fine conclusion to the year in the run up to Christmas, with its relevant, relatable and wretched optimism.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
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