Friday, 4 July 2014

Legally Blonde, Free Rain Theatre, ANU Arts Centre

It's been a while since I've reviewed a Free Rain show - in fact, the last time I did was their production of "Cats" back in 2012 (my first review!) And they've certainly been growing as a company - their production of "Phantom" last year was, like it or not, a landmark in local theatre last year (getting local amateur musicals back on the main stage of the Canberra Theatre is not to be sniffed at).

And there's a whole heap to praise in this show. First of all, the show itself  -I love large chunks of Lawrence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin's score - it's bouncy, bubbly material, with a kinda 80's musical styling full of witty lyrics. Heather Hach's book moves efficiently across the plot, feeling pretty much "Just Like The Movie" - although it does slightly bog down in the legal-trial shenanigans of Act Two (it may be partially that Elle's journey of discovering her self-worth is pretty much done by the end of Act One, so there's not really a lot of internal movement outside of plot shenanigans to drive the show).

Next, the cast. Do I believe that the only option was to cast an interstate professional as Elle? Well, I'll just say that the cast also includes Jenna Roberts, Vanessa de Jager, Laura Dawson and Michelle Norris and leave it at that. But if we're going to have to do that (and it may have been a contractual requirement for the rights), Mikayla Williams is charming, funny, engaging, dances wonderfully and sings pretty good too (though her voice was obviously tiring by the end of Act One - still, she's barely offstage during the entire show and she was back on pitch in Act Two, so a temporary lapse can be forgiven).

Jenna Roberts is Jenna Roberts. Which means ... well, my theatre-crush on her just extended again. Her gloriously, goofily ridiculous, adorable, ever-so-slightly-trashy Paulette is welcome whenever she appears on stage, particularly when singing "Ireland", possibly the most ridiculously whimsical song of the score.

Damon Grebert-Wade is a suitably snotty Warner, although there's just enough of a hint as to why he might be likeable underneath to not make Elle's attraction to him ridiculous. Brian Kavanaugh is sleezy, jazzy perfection as the slimy Professor Calaghan. Dave Evans' Emmett is likable but ... maybe it's a problem with me having seen too many musicals, but this is very much a photostat Dave Evans performance (I've seen that "clutch the chest and look into the middle distance and belt the note" movement too many times before) and there's never really a lot of chemistry between him and Williams, which is a pity. Sarah Darnley-Stuart's Vivienne is delightfully snotty when required and equally generous when required to be, however her singing voice feels a bit too "trained" - I don't know that this should be a role that needs collatura sounds, and her vocals don't mix well with the rest of the cast.

Elsewhere in the cast, David Cannell's three cameos stick out for particular attention as being delightful cartoons, similarly Zack Drury's Kyle arouses repeated hysteria (and he even gets a chance to unleash his comedy-legs). Special mention to Bella as Bruiser and particularly Mosey as Rufus, who are quite adorable and most importantly don't bite any of the cast.

Nick Griffin's musical direction is tight and sharp - this is a well drilled cast and band working at peak power. Michelle Heine's choreography is similarly skilled - I have no idea how the cast has quite that much energy but I'm glad they get a chance to show it all off. The set is a combination of Steve and Susie Walsh's architecture (which is adaptable, clever and gives the cast multiple useful playing areas) and Chris Pitcairn's AV design (which, again, indicates the tone with witty cartoonishness). Fiona Leach's costumes are all wonderful (I'm not entirely sure how you get danceable low-crotch pants for the Jamaican bit of "What You Want" but I'm glad she found them) - whether tacky or couture, they reflect character, mood and style.

Chris Neal's sound design needs polishing - in the opening number I had no idea which cast member was singing which line for large chunks of the song, and levels generally were pumped into the uncomfortable level of "loud" (to be fair, I was seated pretty much in prime blasting range of one of the speakers, but still).

So this is a show I love, done to a high degree of polish. It's good, friendly fun.

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