The University of Ottawa’s Musical Theatre Society has just served up what might be the most fun production of January. If you missed this sold out show, I can understand your feelings of FOMO. It’s been just over a week and I’m still thinking about this production.
Legally Blonde: The Musical (book by Heather Hach with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe) is, if you hadn’t already guessed, based on the 2001 film of the same name (which in turn is based on the 2001 novel by Amanda Brown- we were surprised too). The film originally stars Reese Witherspoon in her breakout role as veritable ‘Malibu Barbie’ Elle Woods and the story sees her take on the prestigious Harvard Law School in an attempt to win back her College (ex)sweetheart Warner. In a rather unexpected twist, Elle defies all expectations (and crushes those tired “dumb blonde” stereotypes) when she actually applies herself and unlocks her true potential as a law student all while staying true to her ‘SoCal’ self.
For the record: I have never seen Legally Blonde in its musical form and up until now I had only seen the original film and, for some reason or another, I binge watched the MTV reality show The Search for Elle Woods when it initially aired. Nevertheless, on opening night I was excited to get my ‘snaps’ on and even decked myself out in the brightest, pinkest, knit sweater I could find. I was ready.
The space at Academic Hall, in my opinion, is not always the best suited for such large casted musicals (since it’s often difficult to figure out where to put the musicians), but this company makes it work with relative success. Set-wise the stage is kept understandably minimal, given that most of the information can be discerned from the narrative, but the costume design and the actors themselves do a good job of differentiating characters as well as time and place. Props are rolled on and off stage with ease by the stage-hands as we traverse locations from Elle’s dorm room, to a department store, to a courtroom, and, of course, the beauty salon.
Though there are some awkward stage arrangements (the door frame sitting centre stage during the piece’s emotional climax successfully blocking Elle and Emmett from half the audience, for example); some moments of lost energy during the later dance numbers (i.e. cast members too “tired” to sing); and times where the live orchestra completely overpowers the vocals; These students are sure to overcome these minor missteps with more experience in the theatre community: the directors and choreographers will direct and choreograph more shows; the cast will gain more endurance as they participate in more musicals and theatre in general; and the vocals will only grow with more confidence (and having the band play out of an actual orchestra pit is always the dream though tougher to realize irl). The few problems in this production are certainly not enough to take away from its overall theatricality and this ‘room to grow’ should be taken as a positive note in the University of Ottawa’s Musical Theatre Society’s book.
Every single performer in this 25 person (plus TWO dogs) cast is living their best theatre life on stage and, honestly, the energy is infectious. Keegan Carr certainly holds her own as the eponymous Elle Woods, and though she appeared to lose steam in a couple of numbers in the second half of the show, she never drops character. As Emmett Forrest, the law teaching assistant who agrees to help tutor Elle, Tim Barretto-Burns delivers this deadpan humour that plays great against the overblown Valley Girl attitudes of the Greek Chorus and of Elle herself. Finally, I’m not sure how you can even begin to compare to Jennifer Coolidge’s iconic rendition of the eclectic Paulette Bunafonte (I’m almost positive literally everyone who grew up through the 2000s is aware of what the ‘bend and snap’ is), but Hilary Peck makes a strong case for it! Rocking a Trixie Mattel tee, bright violet dip-dyed hair, and an assortment of wacky (in the best way) Fluevog shoes, Peck brings our beloved Jersey aesthetician into 2018 (I like to picture her as someone who religiously watches RuPaul’s Drag Race, makes her own face scrubs, and Pinterests like nobody’s business). Not to mention, this performer has an incredible set of pipes and brought down the house during the numbers “Ireland” and “Bend and Snap”(obviously).
I also want to give a shout out to some of the performers who were tasked with playing more minor characters and who, every time they came on stage, had excellent presence regardless of how many lines they had: Shreyas Batra has a face that just lights up when he gets on stage and my eye was drawn to him each time he was in a scene; I will probably never forget Noah Aquino’s gut-busting performance as Carlos in the number “There! Right There!” wearing that fantastic ‘Baby Slut’ t-shirt; and, collectively, Ocean Williams, Emma Woodside, and Katie Moroz, as Elle’s sorority sister BFFs and the ringleaders to Elle’s inner Greek Chorus, who were responsible for driving a lot of the musical’s fast and seemingly tireless pace all the while maintaining their sassy, snaps-filled, attitudes.
The Directing Team (along with Music Directors, Choreographers, Vocal Directors and coaches) should also be given credit here as this was easily one of the strongest UOMTS productions I have seen (and I’ve been around since it’s progenitor Broadway Off Broadway). It’s encouraging to see a musical theatre company being supported at the University considering that Ottawa is home to Orpheus Musical Theatre Society, one of the longest running theatre companies in North America. The longevity of these companies is solely dependent on bringing in new talent along with their veterans, so hopefully Orpheus (and others) will take notice of some of these talented individuals- if they haven’t already.
Legally Blonde, though being released in the early 2000s, has held up fairly well over the last 16 years. The story about a woman overcoming obstacles in the face of those who would discourage and/or manipulate her because of her femininity is still one that rings true today. Women are still facing misogynistic stereotypes in both academia and the workplace that have maintained not only the inequality of wages between genders but also the seemingly rampant culture of sexual harassment (amongst other things). Given that we know women, statistically, attend the theatre more than their male counterparts, it is really no wonder then why a musical about a woman beating the odds, defeating the villain, getting the guy (and the job) while staying true to herself is still so popular.
In any case, the UOMTS has done a commendable job with this production and it is a shame it didn’t run longer. Be sure to mark May 18th-20th on your calendars because they will be mounting the Tony-award winning Assassins as directed by Hilary Peck and I, for one, won’t be missing it.
Legally Blonde: The Musical
Book by Heather Hach
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe
Presented by The University of Ottawa Musical Theatre Society
January 10-14, Academic Hall
Director/Choreographer: Storm Davis
Assistant Director/ Vocal Director: Michelle Gendron
Assistant Choreographer: Katie Moroz
Music Director: Peter Grant Mackechnie