Legally Blonde: Couldn’t get (So) Much Better

Omigod, you guys. Legally Blonde, the blockbuster musical adaptation of the 2001 film, has been a steady choice for uni and college productions across the last few years. Most recent addition to the party is the University of Melbourne Music Theatre Association (UMMTA), with a strong rendition of the classic that proves the adage; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Performing in Union House’s Guild Theatre, UMMTA pull together the chaotic scope of the show into something vibrant and energetic that feels smooth – a mark of the group’s professionalism, especially for an amateur student company. Director Rebecca Cecil’s take also has a welcome note of freshness to it, pulling inventive touches of comedy out of often-bland scenes – the running gag of Elle’s parents power-walking around the stage in matching velour tracksuits is pure delight.

A central strength of the show is Daisy-Rose Coppola, who gives a stunning performance in the title role. Her Elle is driven and confident but also goofy and silly, with just the right amount of vulnerability where called for. A certified triple threat, her performance is backed by powerful and polished vocals and impressive dance ability. Best of all, Coppola never feels like she’s trying to do someone else’s version of Elle, and her interpretation of the comedy, self-confidence and lovability at the heart of the character is so crucial to the story. Joey Phyland provides a more-than-worthy counterpart as Emmett, giving a warm and genuine performance backed up with a gorgeous voice. One of the strengths of Legally Blonde is the sweet and natural build-up of the relationship between the two leads, and Coppola and Phyland hit every beat of mentorship, friendship, flirtation and love just right.

Performances across the wider cast are similarly strong. Asher Harrington plays Paulette with a slightly manic quirkiness and impressive mature vocals, her scenes with dropkick ex Dewey and the uncomfortably sexy Kyle (both played by Joshua Meadows) being especially enjoyable. Noah Szto’s charming(ish) Warner commands admiration and pity through his descent into high school has-been, and Ahila Navaratnam as Vivienne satisfyingly kicks him to the curb amidst acerbic bitchiness and gorgeous vocals – backed up by a show-stealing Enid (Eloise Bagnara) and her killer belt. Spencer Hines commands the team with appropriate sharklike grace (and predatory tendencies) as Callahan, giving a particularly jazzy rendition of Blood in the Water.

The sorority-girls-turned-Greek-chorus give some of the night’s most energetic and professional performances. All are strong, but Selena Nicastri’s vocals and comedy timing make her a particularly commanding stand-out across her various roles. Bronte Smeaton also deserves a particular mention for finding ways to shine in her roles as Bruiser and Rufus – a mark of true physical comedy talent.

The performances are complemented by fantastic styling, especially in terms of costume.

Everything is perfect (and just their size!), from the earthy Harvard ensembles to the parallel white outfits for the sorority Greek chorus, and Elle is, for once, allowed to dress in outrageous pink outfits that are still grounded in reality. The butterfly-clip nostalgia is peak, but without the eye-watering cringe of actual 2000’s fashion.

UMMTA has a reputation for strong casts, but the incredibly tight and rich harmonies are a testament to the work of vocal director Isabella Wiemers – the cast sound almost invariably gorgeous, and the ensemble singing is a highlight of the night.

In fact, the cast’s seamless work sometimes shows up the band, who tackle a challenging score with gusto but do occasionally struggle or drag in the more difficult, fast-paced songs. A real drum kit to drive the beat would have been an asset here, as the undoubtedly capable musicians sometimes feel slightly out of sync with each other, or perhaps strangely mixed – an issue most noticeable to me in the entr’acte and iconic riff preceding Omigod. There are also some unfortunate sound issues, including a problem with Vivienne’s microphone during her most pivotal scene.  That said, all these moments of weakness would stand out much less in a show that wasn’t, as a whole, remarkably polished for a university production.

The Guild is, in many ways, not the ideal venue for this show. UMMTA tackle this with a simplistic and stylish set, and the inventive use of stage and seamless transitions work well – for example, the transplanting of Elle and Warner’s breakup from fancy restaurant to the steps of the sorority house. That said, if there’s one thing Legally Blonde is not, it’s minimalist.  All involved do a wonderful job negating the challenges associated with the space, but it’s hard not to picture what could have been with a slightly bigger cast, on a slightly bigger stage – especially in crammed-in choreographed numbers like the usually-explosive Bend and Snap.

Legally Blonde is a story that still feels relevant, despite the occasional iffy early-two-thousands moment around issues like “…multiculturalism?” – sexuality, too, is invariably used as a punchline, especially in Enid’s case. However, UMMTA do a great service to the female-driven story, and it’s impossible not to come out feeling touched, empowered and full of pure joy. This was especially poignant with the renowned feminist writer Clementine Ford sitting a few seats ahead of me – who, to UMMTA’s credit, seemed to have a blast.

Unless you already have tickets, getting in to see all this for yourself will be about as hard as getting into Harvard with a fashion merchandising major. My advice? Do your best to beg, borrow or steal yourself a way in. Show up at the UMMTA HQ, and ask if they’ve ever been in love – if they have, they’ll know. If they don’t let you in, they’re hypocrites.

Lucy Fenwick Elliott

UMMTA’s production of Legally Blonde runs from 18 – 26 October at The Guild Theatre.