Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Wit, Inventiveness and High-Voltage Choreography

Aberystwyth Summer Musical

Legally Blonde-Aberystwyth Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , July 29, 2015
Aberystwyth Summer Musical by Legally Blonde-Aberystwyth Arts Centre Aberystwyth’s five-week summer show is now a taut and honed production machine. “Legally Blonde” has a company of eighteen singers and dancers, a band of five musicians and a design requirement for scenes from a Malibu beach to a Boston penitentiary. It is a big show, the likely biggest after WNO in Wales’ annual calendar, and one that arrives via the tightest of rehearsal periods. That it does so with the brio, panache and flamboyance of this production is part-due to the well-established team behind it.

Musical supervisor Michael Morwood makes a summer return from his rest-of-year duties at RWCMD along with musical director Dave Dossett. Director-choreographer Anthony Williams returns for a show that overflows with his trademark inventive high-voltage dance. On the last Saturday of August the weight of audience applause customarily brings him on stage for a few words. He pays tribute to the qualities of the Aberystwyth technical team, led by Nick Bache, and declares that no venue anywhere fields a finer.

After his arches and gothic twists for 2014’s “Sister Act” David Shields is again designer for 2015. Another recognisable figure David Barrett is on stage. A few years ago on the same stage he wrung every ounce of pathos to be had from Kander and Ebb’s “Mr Cellophane.” This year he is associate director offstage and lead man onstage as crumple-clothed lawyer-with-integrity Emmett Forrest.

A recent article by Rhod Beard, published by Wales Arts Review, looks forward to the Roald Dahl commemorations of 2106 and a large site-specific piece with an audience of five children. The article is a rare thing in Welsh letters, satire, on a strand of theatre with a predilection for homing in an audience of modest numbers. Not so at Aberystwyth where there are nine thousand seats to be sold. That makes the choice of musical crucial. “Sweeney Todd” or “Aspects of Love” are never going to make it but “Legally Blonde” is an astute choice, not just for its recency and familiarity, but that it plays to the company’s strengths.

The first change that Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin have made in their film-to-stage transition is that it almost wholly sung-through. There are scenes of dialogue in Heather Hach’s book but the proportion to music is much the same as Mozart put into his “Escape from the Seraglio.” Admittedly, their score goes without a ballad of emotional depth that “Sister Act” got in “The Life I Never Lived”. The emotional high point is when ambitious straight guy Barnaby Hughes’ Washington Huntingdon III severs his relationship with Rebecca Stenhouse’s irrepressible Elle Woods.

But in its place is a regular wit and a wildness of humour. “Some say I’m a pompous creep” sings a future member of the legal elite “…I don’t lose much sleep.” When Emmett is propelled by Elle into a department store for a style make-over the lyrics comment “…that’s kind of neat/ people who wear that get beat up on my street.” Nicola Avino’s preppy Vivienne Kensington has a repertoire of putdowns for Elle. “Some day we’ll be nominating Supreme Court justices”- a pause- “and you’ll tan.”

“Legally Blonde” has its lead roles to make its narrative work but is generously structured so as to share good parts around its large and almost uniformly young cast. Peter Karrie is the only player of maturer years as Professor Callahan. He makes his memorable entry with “Blood in the Water” but then the plot gives him a surprise transition from taskmaster of severity to nasty guy. Elle brings a vibrant chorus with her from laid-back California to buttoned-up Massachusetts. Daisy Steere, Melanie Elizabeth and Chrissie Perkins are among the squawking, sashaying friends from home with their habit of leaping on stage at Elle’s lower moments on her passage to legal seriousness.

Wade Lewin makes a second act entry as UPS man Kyle B O’Boyle’s six foot plus of smouldering testosterone. So too does Helen Petrovna as DVD fitness magnate Brooke Wyndham, leading her dance troupe into “Whipped into Shape” with accessory skipping ropes. Attorney-client privilege is a regular in John Grisham but never in his twenty-plus legal thrillers is there a case where the alibi is a liposuction operation of shame. The reason is that it will wreck Brooke’s business empire of delivering “nut-cracker butts.”

The second act centres on a trial of wild and hardly probable comedy. Rosie Needham is a witness beneath two torrents of cascading hair. “TTP” observes a chorus member “Totally Tragic Perm.” Ricardo Castro, a slinky gangster from 2014, takes centre stage as a witness of questionable testimony. Karl Loxley doubles Dewey with outraged lover Carlos. The classical Broadway musical never did a number like the all-company “Gay or European.” Even Andrew Simeon’s Judge gets to reveal himself unexpectedly.

The stage configuration for “Legally Blonde” has a forward walkway that loops around the band. David Shields’ design for Elle’s home space is best described as akin to a raspberry ripple paddle steamer. The sombre halls of Harvard are of rich dark wood but with angles all askew. The production makes clever but restrained use of back projection for its scene-setting. Elle’s parents play on a California golf course. Beach dudes of awesome musculature frolic and flaunt on the Pacific sand.

“Legally Blonde” is a tribute to sisterhood. Kiara Jay is first friend Paulette Bonafonte in her salon with its pictures of big hair. Alison Rona Cleland is punchy fellow student Enid. Even Vivienne makes a surprise volte-face in the name of female solidarity. “Legally Blonde” also contains a joke on Riverdance, a real crowd-pleaser.

It also has a couple of bit parts that are a challenge to any director. Tiger Lily plays her scenes as Bruiser Woods with a sweet but quiet decorum. Charlie Jay as Rufus Bonafonte puts on a show of sheer ebullient enjoyment that perfectly matches the company’s spirit. The audience loves him but then they love the whole thing too. Those nine thousand tickets are as a big a challenge as any in these days of unprecedented cultural overflow. But “Legally Blonde” is a show with a consistent humour, an unbounded vitality, a lot of high-kicking, and another notch of high credit for the record of Aberystwyth productions.

“Legally Blonde” continues until 30th August

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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