BWW Review: LEGALLY BLONDE at Lillestrøm Kultursenter - An Explosive Pink Energy Bomb
Skedsmo Amateur Theatre (SKAT) is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a brand new production of "Legally Blonde" where the acting and enthusiasm of the performers is truly evident. It is time for the Norwegian musical theatre scene as a whole to be given more attention from politicians, as well as potential sponsors and investors, so that more people could get a chance to see performances like this.
This is a show-musical, which takes you on a two-and-a-half hour long ecstatic high-tempo celebration that, in the first act in particular, barely gives you time to catch your breath, producing spine twinkling spectacles, while most of the true emotional scenes are spared for the second act.
We are introduced Elle Woods (Linn Gabrielsen) who lives a glamorously carefree life in Malibu, where fashion, fillers, shopping and superficial joys make up the most important aspects of her day to day life. She is expecting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Warner, but finds, instead, that he is breaking up with her. He is only interested in a girl who is "less of a Marilyn more of a Jackie". She decides to pursue Warner (Marcus Rooth) to the prestigious Harvard Law School to show him that she can be serious, and ends up proving that even the most superficial of barbies with endless access to dad's money have the means to actually manage on their own.
Reviewers have argued what the core of the story is. You can view it as an almost parodic example of the American dream, that proves that is if your desire and effort comes from the heart, you can manage anything (which to some would look nicer in a frame than on stage). Having seen the original Broadway version, I was somewhat worried about how such a performance fare to a Norwegian audience.
In the Lillestrøm production, however, the story played out more as a neo-feminist drama that put every dumb blonde joke to shame; a superficially judged bleached blonde can indeed have IQ over 35, and living through your true emotions and instincts can actually take you far. I suspect we have director Christoffer Paulsen to thank for this, as well as leading lady Linn Gabrielsen.
Her portrayal of Elle was more natural and less flimsy than in the Broadway production in terms of expression, voice, song and language, which I believe was a necessary step to take when presenting the show to Norwegian audiences.
The Delta Nu "sisters" appears around Elle like sparkling, colorful feathers on a peacock. Also one of Delta Nu friends is a Pizzazz-filled guy in this production (hilariously played by Ole Henrik Risøy Solheim), which is a welcomed surprise that adds that extra something in the Delta Nu dance numbers. Speaking about the Delta Nu, I also want to mention Marthe Tjernagel Elgesem, who distinguished herself as one with extraordinarily good control of her voice.
Above all; Vilde Cecilia Ratvik's portrayal of Paulette Buonufonte is magnificent. Not only did she sing with a very convincingly with pitch perfect conveying ability. Admittedly, she had a crowd pleasing role, but "omigod" she incorporated such empathy to the part. Also here we clearly see how the characters have been "Norwegianized" - this Paulette was not the typical trailer trash like in the original but more of a whimsically, tacky and easy going "suburban gal".
Christian Ranke's Professor Callahan, worked very well, and he managed to be mean with some integrity in the mix. His number "Blood in the Water" was very good. I also want to highlight the chorus as particularly impressive in this number.
Emilie Berge Appelquist as exercise video star/murder accused Brooke Wyndham was very exciting during the act two opening "whipped into shape". It's no easy task to jump rope and sing at the same time, but her vocals showed no signs of fatigue during this choreographically impressive number. Lars-Jørgen Kristiansen is akwardly sweet and charming as Emmet Forrest.
The choreography by Cecilie Marjatta Välinen, is thought through to the smallest detail, and is performed very skillfully, much thanks to the Delta Nus. Generally retaining an Americanized look for choreography and stage design was good move, yet at the same time making translation and directing consciously less extravagant and more subdued to a Norwegian audience
With a higher budget I would have wanted them to add more glitz and glam to backdrops of the sets, to match the elaborate choreography. That said the design was creatively executed as it was, with a lot of use of LED light strips in different color variations, which meant that very few all-encompassing stage change was needed. The scene changes were however one of the things that impressed me, with very smooth transitions (done by the actors who had obviously been "whipped into shape" to manage these), which made the production look even more professional and it infused the entire performance. I did not miss automated stage changes at all, but with a bigger budget I would have wished for more widespread color use in the surrounding sets so that it matched the energy level of the rest of the performance.
Being able to replace the orchestral recordings with a real live orchestra would have taken the music to a majestic level, making the songs even more magical than they already were. But obviously a huge orchestra is expensive. And the vocal performance largely outweighed this point. Especially in the big numbers where the ensemble sang on a very different level, compared to the similar production
During solo parts the ensemble members had somewhat varying in quality of singing, acting and dance skills, but they made each other play to the top of their game, and the highlights of the show became the big ensemble numbers.
The costumes were to a huge degree far more than one might expect in a local theatre group with limited budget, and a highlight in particular was the spectacular cheerleader group number. A dozen dancers shook their pompoms in short blue skirts and shorts, with Elle as the main cheerleader, with pompoms in silver in a tambourine-like jacket and hat. A wonderful visual.
The translation worked for the most part very well, both in songs and text. A good portion of the lyrics were more or less direct translations that hit the mark without sounding forced, and some songs where skillfully re-invented. For example "The Chip on my shoulder" became "Kraften som driver" (in Norwegian: the power that drives you). But why not make a cool paraphrase of "Bend and snap"? In Norwegian, the expression makes little sense. On the other hand; the solution of translating "Is he gay or European" to "Er han homo eller franskmann" (in Norwegian: Is he gay or French) was brilliantly translated, and wonderfully performed. A true showstopper! One of the songs that worked best in translated form was the Harvard variations, which consistently had good flow and rhythm.
While the first act was marked by one energetic number after another, the adrenaline had calmed down a bit before the second act was underway, and at times we were allowed to breathe at least halfway. It wasn't a moment, though, and the biggest freeze-back moments were in the second act. The scene when Paulette finally got her dog back was beautifully performed, and characterized by more emotions and less rudeness than in the original staging.
During act one the directorial solution when Warner announced that he was going to propose to Vivienne (Karin Gjørv Røraas), while everyone except Elle and Emmet (Lars-Jørgen Kristiansen), her "real" soulmate, remained in freeze until she discovered that it might not be so bad after all, and started moving again, was also a very beautiful moment.
All in all, I will say this production encompasses the best of both worlds: The playfulness and enthusiasm of amateur theatre while at the same time, with so many musical numbers done by performers on a high a professional level. Truly impressive singing complicated vocal arrangements like this (Must have been a huge task for Musical Director Thomas Gunnari Røtting to bring it together). I truly wish this production of "Legally Blonde" will delight audiences in its limited September run. Let us keep our fingers crossed that it doesn't get overshadowed by parallel musical productions!
All photos by: Tom Bjørkholt Settem