Here comes another throwback to join the glut of nostalgic 90s and 00s films currently being resurrected on stage. Based on the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon, its story hinges on the stereotype of the dumb blond, amid other cliches.
Laurence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin and Heather Hach’s 2007 musical excised much of the film’s outmoded gender politics and casual homophobia, but Lucy Moss’s revival now gives the story a camp revamp to turn it into a musical for today.
The plot stays faithful to the original: fashion merchandising student Elle Woods (Courtney Bowman, who starred in Moss’s Six), miraculously gets herself into Harvard to win back her boyfriend, Warner (Alistair Toovey, sufficiently smarmy), but ends up becoming a top-notch lawyer and falling for the far more upstanding Emmett (Michael Ahomka-Lindsay).
The gender politics feel entirely overhauled, as does its central blond bombshell – previously played in London by Sheridan Smith. Where both she and Witherspoon were classic white blonds, Bowman’s blond-braided Elle is entirely different. There are few cookie-cutter blonds here in fact, and in a show that seems squarely aimed at teenagers, Elle captures a Gen-Z spirit of girl power. She spells her moral messages out loud and clear (“I believe in sisterhood”), but this heavy-handedness can’t be faulted in a musical that trades on its lack of subtlety.
Bowman gives an incredibly strong performance, although Nadine Higgin, as the salon worker, Paulette, nearly steals her thunder with her raunchy magnetism and powerful voice.
This is a tongue-in-cheek production that comes with a megawattage of kitsch and to some degree sends up the genre of the high-school musical. Characters are pancake flat, reaching beyond stereotype into cartoonishness: the Harvard clique is dressed in muted shades of browns and greens while Elle’s world is a blinding pink mono shimmer. Her handbag dog de ella, Bruiser, is here a man-sized creature, played by Liam McEvoy in body sock, pink belt and pert tail who looks like a stray from the latest CGI cats.
Campness dominates, with nasal American high-school accents, teenage squeals and deliberate overacting. Hach’s book does not feel nostalgic, its reference points updated with mentions of Timothée Chalamet and Too Hot to Handle. Ellen Kane’s choreography is fabulously playful and the ensemble is strong. There is talent throughout the cast, too, from Vanessa Fisher’s poise as Warner’s girlfriend, to Lauren Drew’s remarkable ability to jump rope and sing Whipped into Shape as the incarcerated fitness instructor Brooke.
Laura Hopkins’ two-tiered set is shaped like a big blond fringe and swiftly transforms, especially in the final scene when a courtroom wondrously morphs into a bathroom in seconds. The stage sometimes looks bare and the cast do not entirely fill it, while there are not enough big, show-stopping numbers. But the songs are humorous and original. Bend and Snap is a comic highlight while Gay or European pulls away from the queasy assumption in the film that gay men can instantly recognize a pair of last-season Prada shoes, the song incorporating a wide range of modern masculinities instead, and highlighting prejudices or lazy assumptions around them.
At times it is so pink and squealy that it feels like a summer pantomime. If it is outlandish and ridiculous, it is heady good fun too.