14 to 22 April
I ventured a little bit closer to home last night to attend the opening night of Waterdale’s Legally Blonde. Adapting cult classic films for the stage, whether they become plays or musicals, is certainly nothing new and due to the popularity of the original source material, many have become favourites in the theatre world as well but this can also result in shows being overdone, so it’s important that each production of said shows adds something new to keep it from going stale. With nods to pop culture the original film was released amongst, electronic and televised sets and backdrops and above all, a highly diverse cast with heavy BIPOC, LGBT, transgender and non-binary representation, it is safe to say that Waterdale have successfully made their take on Legally Blonde a retro and refreshing one that adds plenty of fuel to keep Elle Woods’ fire going even after the final curtain falls.
In order to create an innovative adaptation of a cult classic such as this one, first you’ll need to have a killer production team to get it done and it was all lead by director Emerson Hansford, who took it upon themself to make everyone on stage seen and heard no matter how they identify or whether they were a novice or a master in performance. Hansford’s unique vision saw most of the action unfold through a giant DVD player as if the audience was watching a movie in their bedroom, reliving their younger days when chick flicks like Legally Blonde were all the rage and along with their trusty assistant director Meg Farrough, they guided their cast to greatness by allowing them to glide through the American educational world to make their production the ultimate noughties fantasy with a directorial turn that was noble and nostalgic. As musical director, Kristie Thai managed to paint her own creative picture with the score while still complimenting the work being done by those in the director’s chair, as she, assistant MD Daniel Kim and their trusted band took us on a sensual and symphonic journey through every element of good old fashioned American Education art forms. Whether the instrumentation was highlighting the cheer squad, the marching band, the choir, the drama department, etcetera, Thai did not leave one stone unturned and managed to find something for every individual in the audience to take aural pleasure from. These musical arts are usually turned from a concert into a performance with the help of solid choreography but for this to happen, one needs to find someone with the right amount of poise, practice and pride to take the lead and this production found just that in the form of choreographer, Cara Lofts. Over the course of the production’s run time, Lofts got the cast to demonstrate every dance move and trick in the book from kicklines to jump ropes, from twirls to twerks and from bending and snapping to full blown gymnastics and it was clear to see how much fun they were having with each routine and if they came across any difficulty in the process, Lofts’ influence would drive them to accept the challenge and accomplish the mission in a stimulating choreographic display filled with such strategy and stamina.
When it came to the cast, each individual on stage made their characters their very own whether they were a major lead or a part of the spellbinding ensemble and the constant support they had for one another in the performance department really lifted this production to all new heights with their creativity and charisma. Fresh off his Lyrebird win for OCPAC’s In The Heights, Nabs Adnan returned to the Waterdale stage like you’ve never seen him before in the role of Emmett Forrest, one that was vastly different to his previous roles in In The Heights and Waterdale’s Be More Chill. As Forrest, Adnan rose to the challenge in his most mature role to date, resulting in a humbling and heartfelt performance of the law graduate who’s heart is captured by Elle Woods and is taught a valuable lesson in the process, as he continues to establish himself as one of the greatest young performers in Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit. While Emmett is the one who ultimately wins Elle’s love, two other men pine for her for all the wrong reasons and throughout this production, they took the form of Daniel Cooper in the role of Professor Callahan and Numa Lemoh in the role of Warner Huntington III. Their treatment of the show’s main protagonist turned their characters into ones the audience love to hate but it was hard to fault either of their performances, as Cooper delivered a posh and proud portrayal of the ruthless lawyer and professor who’s inappropriate intentions towards his students lead to his ultimate downfall while Lemoh turned in what was arguably, his greatest performance to date as the chauvinistic ex-boyfriend desperate to live up to upper class expectations who mostly wants the “serious” trophy partner, becoming one of the production’s highlights with his suave and sly dedication to the character itself and smooth and soulful vocals reminiscent of artists like Seal and Tunde Baiyewu of Lighthouse Family fame.
In Elle’s story, there are three women in her corner in both her college life and life at Harvard Law School respectively and we found them through the performances given by Sophie Bass as Serena, Laurel Marzan as Margot and Ria Galea as Pilar, the sorority sisters who lead Elle’s inner Greek chorus and Percy Jones as Vivienne Kensington, Eloise Lohrey as Enid Hoopes and Gen Underhill as Brooke Wyndham, Elle’s classmates and client respectively who Re initially hesitant to work with her but grow to put their full trust in her as she strives to get justice for not only the deceased, but herself as well. Bass, Marzan and Galea all gave bubbly and bright-eyed portrayals of the Delta Nu sorority sisters who made each number they were in a fun one, often leading the ensemble at times in some of the production’s biggest chorus moments while Jones, Lohrey and Underhill all delivered performances of three women who couldn’t be more different but together were a vessel of feminist empowerment each with their own spin of quality and quirkiness to become memorable characters in every aspect.
The queens of Waterdale’s Legally Blonde were without question, the two leading ladies who when first introduced in the early 2000s invaded pop culture and with the performances given by Xi Gui Griffin in the role of Elle Woods and Jenny Flores in the role of Paulette Buonafonte had the power to take our beloved circuit by storm. For her portrayal of a law student who proves her worth is so much more than her physical beauty, Griffin was the definitive definition of a leading lady in a role she was born to play as she honoured all of her character’s morals by being true to herself and capturing the heart and soul of the audience with how it came to her so naturally in a royal and regal performance that even the original Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon and her original Broadway performer Laura Bell Bundy would be envious of. As for her portrayal of a hairstylist who’s encouragement for the main protagonist results in a lifelong friendship and who gets encouraged to reclaim her confidence to get her beloved dog back and find true love, Flores engaged in thorough character research to embody Paulette’s character from her mannerisms to her evergreen, convincing Boston accent resulting in a lively and loveable performance that left the audience wanting her to be our best friend too by the end. Together, Griffin and Flores were the undisputed dynamic duo, nothing could put a stop to the bond their characters had and you could tell it wasn’t just the character’s who were friendship goals as their chemistry blew the crowd’s mind and it’s collaborations like these that remain memorable in our beloved theatre world.
Waterdale’s production of Legally Blonde is not the first and won’t be the last to grace our community, but I can guarantee that this adaptation is one of the most faithful productions of recent memory. Through its throwback vision, it reminds us why we originally fell in love with Elle Wood’s story over twenty years ago and through its diverse cast and their message of acceptance and respect, has become one of this year’s theatrical highlights and key productions in our beloved industry’s representation renaissance and I can’t wait to see what other welcoming opportunities Waterdale has to offer us throughout the rest of their 2023 season. Special shoutout to Gen Underhill and Alicia Michaelides for their performances in the show as Brooke Wyndham and Courtney/Whitney respectively, you were both fabulous, to Daniel Kim for his work as assistant MD and to Greg and Chowser, the two live dogs who gave the show it’s cuteness factor. Omigod you guys, make sure you get your tickets to this seriously stylish production while you still can, support the company. Congratulations to everyone associated with this production for a killer opening night, don’t forget to bend and snap and continue to find your way.
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