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Reviewed: Legally Blonde at The Little Theatre

OMIGOD, you guys! Leicester Operatic Players have brought Elle Woods to Leicester.

Elle Woods (Emily Haywood) with the company of Legally Blonde. Photography by Poyner + Mee.
Elle Woods (Emily Haywood) with the company of Legally Blonde. Photography by Poyner + Mee.

Legally Blonde is a story I know very well. As a long time fan of the 2001 film anyway, I also spent a considerable amount of time analysing it during my university years as part of an "Introduction to Hollywood Film" module. Elle Woods is a feminist icon, guys - you can't convince me otherwise.


And yet... I'd never seen the musical. Until now.


Leicester Operatic Players (LOPs) return for their annual visit to The Little Theatre, following the success of last year's charming production of Anything Goes. To move from a Broadway tap-dance classic to a modern "girl power" icon is a bit of a left turn, but from watching the cast on stage, there's no doubt that this show is about fun.


It's the story of Elle Woods, a blonde, pink-loving, UCLA sorority president, whose life seems pretty well mapped out. Yet when long-term boyfriend Warner's expected proposal takes a different direction, Elle concocts a plan to win him back by following him across the country, after successfully applying to Harvard Law School. "What? Like it's hard?"


The fish out of water story that follows sees Elle grow to realise that she's always been more capable than people - or even herself - gave her credit for. The musical, like the movie, does a great job of presenting Elle as a legitimate Harvard applicant with an impressive-but-unorthodox CV to match. I've always loved the "What? Like it's hard?" line, because it reveals how smart Elle actually is - despite everyone else's expectations, she qualified for Harvard on her owns merits, and didn't have to do anything she wasn't already doing in order to meet the requirements.

Emily Haywood as Elle, anticipating Warner's (Ben Cusack) proposal. Photography by Poyner + Mee.
Emily Haywood as Elle, anticipating Warner's (Ben Cusack) proposal. Photography by Poyner + Mee.

Emily Haywood plays Elle, making her debut at The Little Theatre. She's a charming lead, and delivers a controlled, measured performance that never threatens to turn Elle into a caricature. Easy to empathise with and cheer for, Haywood carries the show and handles several big musical numbers ("Omigod You Guys", "So Much Better", "Legally Blonde") with comfort. An impressive debut, that will presumably lead to more.


It's a large cast of 28 (30, if you include both of the audience-favourite dogs), so I won't be able to mention everyone, but there were several standouts.

Brooke Wyndham (Rosie Chalmers) performs "Whipped Into Shape". Photography by Poyner + Mee.
Brooke Wyndham (Rosie Chalmers) performs "Whipped Into Shape". Photography by Poyner + Mee.

Rosie Chalmers plays fitness empress and accused murderer, Brooke Wyndham. A character that doesn't even enter until the second act, but Chalmers arrival is vivacious, and you quickly understand that Brooke is a force to be reckoned with. Act two opener, "Whipped into Shape", sees Chalmers sing the number whilst using a skipping rope throughout, and she never appears to break a sweat or miss a note! It also explains why the cast have been doing a "100-skips-a-day" challenge to raise money for Cancer Research throughout the rehearsal period. There's also lovely characterisation, as Brooke feels like Elle's actual older sibling, and not just a sorority sister. It's clear both characters come from the same background.


Simon Collington plays Emmett Forrest, an associate lawyer and Elle's eventual love interest. Not an easy role to play, as the character could be simply summed up as "objectively, a better man than Warner". Yet Collington finds moments to shine, while still leaving plenty of stage space for Haywood. Like Emmett himself, it's a humble and generous performance from Collington.

Alice Oakley as Paulette. Photography by Poyner + Mee.
Alice Oakley as Paulette. Photography by Poyner + Mee.

Alice Oakley is great fun as Paulette, Elle's friend and salon owner. Very much giving her own take on the character, she's not beholden to the iconic Jennifer Coolidge, and is much freer in the role because of it. An audience favourite, she lights up the stage in both "Ireland" and "Bend and Snap".


A staple of Leicester's amateur musical scene, the ever-delightful Martin Green plays Elle's Harvard mentor, Professor Callahan. He has featured roles in songs like "Blood in the Water" and "Gay or European?" and delivers these effortlessly. He also reveals the character's creepier side in the second half, and there was a palpable disapproval in the room as the audience mentally turned on him. Exactly what's required of the performance, so gold star for Green!

Natasha Ann Carr (Vivienne) and Ben Cusack (Warner). Photography by Poyner + Mee.
Natasha Ann Carr (Vivienne) and Ben Cusack (Warner). Photography by Poyner + Mee.

Ben Cusack and Natasha Ann Carr play the mildly antagonistic duo of Warner Huntington III and Vivienne Kensington, respectively. Neither could really be categorised as a villain, per se. Vivienne and Elle butt heads due to the obvious culture clash, but it never gets super-heated. Warner is a Elle's lost love, but as the show progresses, it becomes clear that they were never well suited in the first place. But both do a lovely job of providing road bumps for Elle to overcome or win over.

Pilar (Niall Johnson), Margot (Charlotte Brown), and Serena (Rachel Wheeler) serve as Elle's Greek chorus. Photography by Poyner + Mee.
Pilar (Niall Johnson), Margot (Charlotte Brown), and Serena (Rachel Wheeler). Photography by Poyner + Mee.

With a big cast, there are several smaller roles within the show, but the actors involved really maximise their minutes and make it count. Niall Johnson, Charlotte Brown, and Rachel Wheeler play Elle's Greek chorus of sorority sisters, Pilar, Margot and Serena, and have a tendency to steal every scene they're in. Meanwhile, Alex Thompson (Nikos), Nick Wilkins (Kyle/Carlos), and Allan Smith (Dewey) each ensure that their laughs-per-minute ratio is amongst the highest in the company.


The creative team of director Jeremy Holt, musical director Steve Duguid, and choreographer Ellie Newbrooks have done an admirable job of bringing this show together. Newbrooks' choreography is especially strong, with numbers "Omigod You Guys", "So Much Better", and "Whipped Into Shape", each built around a unique device, such as mobile phones or skipping ropes.


My only point of concern is that sometimes the staging felt quite busy. For me, the ensemble should be used to illuminate the lead, but with some big star power amongst the cast, they occasionally overshadowed Haywood's controlled performance. It might have been wise for the director to reign them in a little, but it's a minor quibble.


And yes, the opening night did suffer a handful of tech issues, with a laptop crash meaning the projected backdrop never changed throughout act one, and a few lighting/sound issues that will surely be amended throughout the rest of the week. I would also have preferred to see the stage crew that manoeuvre the sets on and off dressed in either blacks or costume, as there appearances in their "civvies" was quite distracting throughout.


But these elements are easy to overlook because the show is not about spectacle. It's an intimate character study, examining how having someone to believe in you can push you beyond the limits you'd envisioned for yourself, and enable you to defy expectations.


Above all, this is a fun show, filled with punchy, likeable songs, well-rounded, amusing characters, and strong, confident performances. An easy show for the audience to enjoy, and two hours spent in the company of Elle Woods will leave you feeling "positive".

The full company of Legally Blonde. Photography by Poyner + Mee.
The full company of Legally Blonde. Photography by Poyner + Mee.

Legally Blonde is playing at The Little Theatre until Saturday, April 20, 2024, with tickets available from the theatre's website and box office (0116 255 1302).

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