By BRUCE DENNILL
Legally Blonde / Directed by Sharon Spiegel-Wagner / Redhill School, Sandton, Johannesburg
This production of Legally Blonde had some hurdles to overcome up front. Some in-house staff changes meant the team behind the show was settled later than was initially planned. In addition, the musical is a tricky piece of work, with challenging music and lyrical phrasing by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and the stage offers – or so it appears from the stalls – like a very narrow space in which the 45-strong (yes!) cast are required to do their work.
So it’s pleasing to see what an impressive job director Sharon Spiegel-Wagner, set designer Nadine Minaar, musical director Tate Mhunduru, choreographer Phillida Le Roux-Liebenberg and the rest of the team have done in getting the show not only up and running, but to an excellent standard. Particularly notable is the apparent confidence of everyone on stage: there will have been plenty of old-fashioned drilling and repetition, but the sense is that this is a young cast who have been given cause to believe in themselves individually and collectively, which translates well via the energy they put into their performances.
Smart casting means the archetypes of a purposefully cliché-ridden story – the primary theme has to do with the folly of judging someone on their appearance – are well defined, while also, for the most part, ensuring that the most naturally talented youngsters are entrusted with the more prominent roles.
Tayla Alexander – who ironically doesn’t physically immediately suggest the standard bimbo image of her character in the Reese Witherspoon-starring film on which the stage work is partly based – is superb as Elle Woods, the fashion-obsessed airhead who follows her ambitious ex-boyfriend Warner (Karl Tiefenthaler) to Harvard Law School, to impress on him that she is more than just her looks and style and thus hopefully win him back. It’s a big, complex role, requiring her to be the focus of almost every scene she’s in and to do a huge amount of singing and dancing alongside carrying the basic narrative. Alexander is convincing in every aspect and, less glamorously, in small, important details as well – the casual but necessary fitting into her pace length of a protruding prop or the fixing – while delivering dialogue – of a colleague’s microphone when it becomes dislodged mid-scene.
Other performances that suggest the potential of future work in the theatre include Nicholas Hattingh as Emmet, Talullah Memani as Paulette and, for adaptability and an ability to give his collection of smaller bit parts a cheerful charm and convincing comedic timing (think a young Robert Fridjhon), Ross Armstrong. Hattingh gives Emmet a reserved, honest authenticity and is a good singer and an authoritative stage presence. That same presence is possessed by Memani in spades, with her Paulette (a hair stylist and one of the first friends Elle makes in her new context) shown to be beautiful inside and out, even if she is not one of the intellectual snobs that make up much of Elle’s law school class.
Good writing and a carefully managed arc throughout both acts mean that the story’s messages are delivered effectively and without condescension to either the setting (of the production, in a school rather than a fully-equipped theatre) or the clichés author Amanda Brown sought to address in her book of the same name, on which the film and the musical were originally based.
There are some flat notes and occasional choreographic missteps – from, remember, non-drama school teenagers who had to fit a testing rehearsal schedule between their homework and studying. And the set, while innovative and cleverly making the most of the compact stage, is necessarily simple and unfussy (there is no extra space to get creative with and there are lovely costumes to catch the eye). But in terms of the effectiveness of what takes place on stage – the communication of the indefinable magic of a good musical, which makes audiences laugh (setpieces Ireland and There! Right There! are hilarious) and lament and cheer on their favourite characters and all the rest – Legally Blonde is undeniably a winner and a marker for the standard that can be achieved given passion and commitment at any level.