Review: 'Legally Blonde' The Musical at Hart House Theatre
(Photo of Emma Sangalli as Elle Woods (centre) and her sorority sisters by Scott Gorman)
By Joe Szekeres,
Chief Toronto Critic - Onstage Blog
Canadian Theatre Critics' Association
'Tis a puzzlement, this 'Legally Blonde' now onstage at The University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre and probably at multiple campuses across North America.
Why? Well, in this time of #metoo and the Harvey Weinsteins who continue to assault women, I'm still amazed why audiences find enjoyment in the story of a young woman who, along with her training from Harvard, uses her feminine wiles in a courtroom to sway the verdict. Yes, there is character growth and a change in Elle by the end of the musical, but the cloud still lingers that women may have to use their beautiful looks and mysterious charm to get what they want.
I'm trying not to spoil the plot (although I'm sure most of us know the story) when a man does respond to Elle's charms a la Harvey Weinstein in Act 2. She smacks his face (and rightly so). And yet, Elle was singing earlier about the advantages of the 'Bend and Snap'. If you don't know the story or haven't seen either the film or the musical, you'll know what the b and s is later.
What confusing messages are sent here? Is this musical too risky to be staged any more?
Perhaps I'm reading far too much into what director Saccha Dennis (currently in the Toronto company of COME FROM AWAY) and this highly engaging and well rehearsed cast intended for this energetic 'LEGALLY BLONDE' which exploded with enthusiasm at the performance I attended. My guest and I had a great deal of fun and so did other audience members around me at this sold out show. There's the first sign you've the audience in the palm of your hand - pure enjoyment and fun while not reading any hidden messages into the play. And if this is what Ms. Dennis and the cast intended for each audience, then my hat's off to you because you succeeded. Beautifully.
We meet Elle Woods (Emma Sangalli), sorority girl who enrolls in Harvard Law School to win back her ex boyfriend, Warner (John Carr Cook). As the story progresses, Elle begins to see and learn how the law can help others in need. In the second act, she defends exercise queen Brooke Wyndham (Amy Holden). Along this journey, we also meet a number of quirky characters who help Elle become the successful woman she is at the end of the story.
In her Director's Note, Ms. Dennis' first line is 'Never judge a book by its cover'. Yes, we've heard this adage before but it can still apply today. I was highly impressed how Holly Meyer-Dymny's set design used large books on rollers that opened and closed easily for the various settings from the law school to the hair salon. At the top of the show, two split level staircases are joined together to create the setting for Elle's sorority. David DeGow's pink shades of light at the top of the show indicated to me this would be a story of girl power. French doors on the main floor open and close for entrances and exits.
The lively nine piece band (led by conductor Giustin MacLean) is located immediately behind the staircase. Jason Cabanaw's soundscape design of musical selection from the 90s was appropriate, and it's loud which definitely set the tone for this performance for my guest and I.
The one quibble I did have about this performance is the sound imbalance between the actors and the band. There were a few moments during the full company songs where I could not hear any of the lyrics as the music overpowered the performers. So much of the spirit and fun of the show is found in the lyrics and, when you can't hear them, that's a disappointment. Hopefully, sound checks before each show can create a better balance between music and singers.
(L-R: Emma Sangalli and John Carr Cook. Photo by Scott Gorman.)
This show is extremely well-rehearsed and moves along briskly. Thankfully the pace never falters or slackens during the two and a half hour run. Gregory Carruthers' choreography is tight and in mindful synchronicity. So much work has gone on behind the scenes to create the 90s look and feel that Ms. Dennis wanted in this production from hair and wigs to costumes and set/properties. Yes, my guest and I definitely felt as if we had been transported back to the 90s.
Emma Sangalli is an intelligent yet bubbly, perky and kewpie doll Elle who stole my heart by the end of the show. John Carr Cook is a conceited Warner who learns that not everything is planned out the way he wants. Elle's Greek chorus and sorority sisters Margot, Serena and Pilar (Paige Foskett, Emilie Macaulay, Tama Martin) sure have the moves and the grooves and look like they're having tremendous fun up on that stage.
Brian Vaughan is a full of himself Professor Callahan whose song 'Blood in the Water' represents what he believes all lawyers should be. As nice guy Emmett Forrest, Ethan Vasquez Taylor naturally reveals his growing affection for Elle. Autumn-Joy Dames appears to be having fun as well as snooty and bitchy Vivienne Kensington, new girlfriend to Warner. As salon owner Paulette Buonofuonte, Moulan Bourke comes close to stealing the show for her nicely timed comic delivery at several moments in the play. Her initial reaction to Kyle B. O'Boyle, the new UPS carrier/driver is priceless.
The entire ensemble of singers and dancers also contribute to the spirit and fun of the piece. Their various bright coloured costumes of shirts, dresses and suits all enhance the new age look of the 90s of "people who dreamed big and wanted to reclaim their place in the world" as director Dennis wrote in her Programme Note.
"Legally Blonde' The Musical is tremendous fun for a cold winter night's entertainment. I think I may have just answered my own question - don't read too much into something that isn't there. Just simply enjoy.
LEGALLY BLONDE, THE MUSICAL
Runs to February 1 at University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle. For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 978-2452 or visit www.harthouse.ca for further information.