Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Thursday 29th September, 2011
When I heard that a film I didn’t really enjoy had been adapted as a stage musical, I did not break my neck in the rush to get a ticket. Now the show is well-established in the West End and a touring production is doing the rounds, so I thought I’d give it a go. Most of the details of the film had long since faded from memory so I was just about coming to it fresh.
The plot centres on one woman’s struggle to succeed at snooty Harvard Law School but she faces prejudice and is met with resistance because she has blonde hair and carries a little dog in a bag. The poor cow. Her motivation for getting a law degree is merely so she can follow the prig who dumped her and sit in the same class. Her father agrees to fund this ill-conceived desire for education without so much as a shrug.
This is Elle Wood’s struggle.
It’s hardly Evita, is it?
This is the problem with the musical. The first half is all about setting her up in class so that she can rapidly rise to the top, using style tips as the answers to legal conundrums. (Conundra?) And it’s all a bit “meh” and “who cares?” The score doesn’t help. Act One is like one endless meandering song, weak on melody and lacking in variety of tone and tempo. A shrieking choir of sorority girls follows Elle to Harvard, in her mind as a Greek chorus. The shrillness is unrelenting.
But Act Two is like a completely different show. The songs are punchy and funny. The action, dominated by a murder trial at which Elle and her classmates are gaining work experience, is lively and hilarious. There is more fun in two minutes of this second half than in the whole of the first. The show revels in its own shallowness, almost sending itself up. If the first half had had more of this spoof quality to it, exaggerating Elle’s blondness into a disability, like being legally blind, then the entire evening would have been very entertaining.
Its message (and there is one) is that you can’t take a shower with a new perm. No, it’s that appearances are important. They can be deceiving (the dizzy blonde is the most intelligent of the bunch; the witness for the prosecution is really a gay). That there is no real struggle, no real jeopardy for our heroine doesn’t matter when the show is performed with exuberance and talent. What is criminal is that the likeable and capable cast only get to shine in half a show.