Directed by Lucy Moss – who did the honours for sleeper West End smash ‘Six’ – this revival of ‘Legally Blonde’ feels less like an update of the 2007 musical, more like a bizarre fever dream about it.
Courtney Bowman is Elle Woods, a bottle blonde who wanders around a hallucinatory pink world full of pink-clad people, singing songs about pink things. She has a dog, Bruiser, played by a fully grown man (Liam McEvoy) in a dog suit, who pulls haughty expressions and has a definite gimp thing going on.
It’s weird, visually striking and basically pretty funny, but I found it very difficult to get a handle on it emotionally. At the beginning, Elle’s relationship with soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Warner (Alistair Toovey) is perfunctory and glancing, like a half memory of their relationship in the film or original musical. Surrounded by her sassy singing chorus of imaginary gal pals, with her weird man-dog, Bowman’s Elle seems like a kook adrift in her own peculiar pink reality, cosplaying the role of the ditzy fashion marketing student who uses her business smarts to follow Warner to Harvard Law School, rather than being an active participant in her own story.
Never in a million years could this yassified, camped up, queered up take on ‘Legally Blonde’ have served as the original: it is emphatically A Version, and you’re liable to feel totally adrift if you’ve not at least seen the film.
I’m saying this as if it’s a bad thing. I’m going to be honest, I saw the film once and the musical once and thought they were both absolutely fine examples of the romcom genre. But if Moss’s pathologically knowing take sacrifices some of the emotional acuity of Reese Witherspoon’s performance, then I reckon we’ll probably live.
Still, after a first half so singularly unafraid to do its own thing that I mostly sat gawping in vague, is-this-really-happening? befuddlement, the second felt more exposing of the shortcomings of both director and the musical itself.
Here, Moss’s production settles down into something that more closely resembles the musical as you’d expect it, with the aggressive colour palette tamping down into earthy hues, and Bowman’s Elle much more invested in cracking the legal case set for her by her professor Callahan (Eugene McCoy) than she ever felt in her relationship with Wagner.
This makes it a lot easier to follow, but it feels that Moss doesn’t necessarily have much to say with her version, beyond ‘let’s make “Legally Blonde” even camper’. In particular, casting a Black actor into a WASPy role feels like a missed opportunity to subvert the archetype of the poor little rich girl, and to interrogate Elle’s obvious privilege. There is no obligation to do that, and clearly Bowman has been cast because she’s a terrific singer and a deeply likeable stage presence. But diversifying a comedy about a group of rich white people without really analysing the original story feels like a bit of a missed trick.
On the other hand, the original songs just aren’t particularly memorable: the likes of ‘Bend and Snap’ and ‘Gay or European?’ have an arch silliness that meshes well with Moss’s aesthetic. The whole thing is still absolutely crying out for a pop banger or three.
Lastly there’s the regrettable matter of Laura Hopkin’s set. I think it’s meant to look like Elle’s hair, which is fine (though I’m not sure her blondeness actually feels desperately central here – her extreme love of pink is clearly the main signifier of her whole ‘vibe’). Dangling ropes that look like cornrows are fine, but the considerable areas of the set adorned with what look like photorealist images of hair just look… horrible, like something knocked up on the cheap in Snappy Snaps.
If you’ve always been desperate to see ‘Legally Blonde’ but more so, then you probably already have tickets, and are unlikely to be disappointed. A lot of very excitable pink-wearing people in the audience were clearly living their best lives. For me, it hovered somewhere between bemusing excess and a disappointingly unadventurous attempt to modernise a musical and story that feels ripe for a more robust interrogation. Still, it’s worth a look, for the gimp man-dog alone.