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Legally Blonde Review: The KMTS Annual Production Is a Pink Joyride

'Legally Blonde' cast members line up within a dance, hands on each others' hips, and leaning forward.
Credit - King's Musical Theatre Society

Staff Writer Anwesh Banerjee reviews King’s Musical Theatre Society’s ‘Legally Blonde,’ which played at the Greenwood Theatre from 25 to 27 April 2024.

When Warner Huntington the Third asked, perplexed, “You got into Harvard Law?” his former girlfriend, the blonde Elle Woods replied, “What, like it is hard?” Like that, an entire generation of cine-goers stood up and took notice.

The film ‘Legally Blonde’ was released in 2001, into a politically complex American context. While history will remember this as the year one of the biggest acts of terror in the world were witnessed, it was also the year Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott won top honors at the Academy Awards for the cult-classic ‘Gladiator’—which is regrettably getting a sequel. Julia Roberts, the reigning queen of the romantic-comedy through the nineties, was finally crowned Best Actress for ‘Erin Brokovich,’ in which she plays a single mother. The world was yet to wake up to the comic prowess of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, and Regina George – the personification of the 2000s – hadn’t yet hit the silver screen. This was the Hollywood that met the campy, blonde Elle Woods. 

Elle Woods was a career-defining role for Reese Witherspoon. ‘Legally Blonde’, the beloved comedy about a sorority girl’s journey into the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School, was a film which that inspired an entire generation of girls (and gays!) to dream of Law School. Inspired by a 2001 novel of the same name, and helped by the gift that is Jennifer Coolidge, ‘Legally Blonde’ argued for authenticity, self-sufficiency, and belonging. In 2007, the film was adapted into a musical for Broadway, with a subsequent West End production debuting in 2010. The former was nominated for 7 Tony Awards, and the latter for 5 Lawrence Olivier Awards, eventually winning three, including Best New Musical. 

Adapting a story with this much cultural history is no easy task. Writing something new about a story and its central lead, which have rightfully occupied the public imagination for more than two decades, is even harder. When you perform a story that is seemingly as old as time (and, in parts, oddly dated,) what more do you add to the discourse that has not already been uttered? Is it a risk even worth considering? 

Two dancers from 'Legally Blonde' spin around one another. One is outfitted as a UPS driver. The other is Paulette, Elle's nail artist.
Credit – King’s Muisical Theatre Society

The King’s Musical Theatre Society gleefully takes that risk. In their spring production, Neil Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe’s musical became a vivacious, two-hour joy ride — filled with toe-tapping melodies, ambitious choreography, delightfully campy costumes, and an emotionally resonant core borne through by the production’s lead and supporting cast members. It was a stellar show – one that was an affirmation of the enduring legacy of cult-classic productions like this one. 

This production, directed by Bea Watts and Francesca Hotson, co-choreographed by Kai Patel and with musical direction from Rohan Godfrey and Isabella Guilar, sticks to the major beats of the original story. We meet Elle (a glorious Maria Hoffer Tillyer) as she reels from her first heartbreak of being rejected by Warner (Luke Purwar) for being an ‘unserious’ optic adage to his career as a future American senator. Determined to prove her mettle as more than just a dumb blonde, Elle moves heaven and earth to secure a seat at Harvard Law, in a bid to prove her intelligence (and win back Warner’s heart). In this seemingly impossible endeavour, Elle is supported by her closest friends Serena (Kiera Gandhi), Margot (Aash Chaturvedy) and Pilar (Sam Matchett-Griffiths). 

These three, after inciting the narrative of this musical adventure, eventually morph into an almost Sophoclean Chorus, keeping Elle company through her highest and lowest moments in Harvard and beyond. Gandhi, Caturvedy and Griffith bring an infectious energy to the production; their rock-solid mutual support and love is palpable, and thus their friendship buoys their impressive dance numbers and therefore the energy of the production. In a cultural atmosphere where Ambika Mod and Avantika are taking up the mantle of South-Asian representation through classic roles previously played by white women, Gandhi and Chaturvedy’s casting is a stroke of genius. This clever casting adds to the wider, immediate relevance of a production of this stature. As artists gifted with prowess in acting, singing and dancing, these three never make little of their supporting roles. Their understanding of the proscenium as a performance space is outstanding, as is their comic timing and towards the final stretches of the musical, it is their hilarity that keeps the otherwise more than two-hours long musical afloat. 

Watts continues this sharp cultural consciousness beyond just mere casting choices. Sparkling one liners like “Less of a Marilyn Monroe more of a Jackie serious”, serve as strong reminders of the female identity politics of the American East Coast that, till date, actively thrives on commodification of bodies and psyches. In the early minutes of the play, prior to Elle’s admission into Harvard, the admissions committee’s deliberations upon the ‘multicultural values’ that apparently ‘define an institution like Harvard’, serve as a stark reminder that are Ivy League admissions are a farce in our modern climate of hostility. 

A duet from 'Legally Blonde' in which the two leads, wrapped around each other, sing passionately, The background is washed in pink light, and both actors are outfitted smartly.
Credit – King’s Musical Theatre Society

But all hope is not lost, as Elle is soon taken under the gentle care of the law-teaching assistant Emmett Forrest (played by the stupendous Aiden Phipps). Phipps brings an unassuming, lanky charm to his role that underlines the sincerity of his character’s nerd persona. In the initial stretches of the Harvard section of the musical, Emmett struggles to understand Elle, and subsequently his fascination for her. It is an attraction that is perplexing even to the most critical of minds, and Phipps’ sincerity as a performer shows. In front of Tillyer’s full-bodied frustrations and setbacks, the quietness of his movements and boyish charm work wonders towards creating the core chemistry that drives this musical through. It is an absolute delight to watch the two of them play off each other’s energies. 

Even as the musical subsequently begins to roll towards its final act, fraught with questions of female solidarity and workplace assault, what struck me was the sheer panache with which the makers of this production underline narrative fault-lines which had hitherto never struck me as worthy of a second thought. Take for example, Elle’s knowledge of custodial rights for women which helps her in retrieving of Paulette’s (Matilda Shapland) pet dog (arguably the crowd-favourite star of this production). And then of course, there is her instant-classic climactic spiel about post-perm after-care, which yet again ends up winning a legal battle (this one involving a murder accusation). But all these wins – small and big – only end up pointing towards a deeper, patriarchal assumption that we as a polity have towards law as a profession.

For a profession that has for ages been relegated to the realm of the male gender, what truly qualifies as serious and unserious law? Must the law be divorced from the practicalities of lived-experiences? Is Elle’s experiential, and seemingly flippant knowledge of things in any measure of lesser importance than that wielded by the likes of Emmett? ‘Legally Blonde’, while charting the journey of a foppish woman’s tribulations at a male-dominated law school like Harvard, never seriously provokes its audience to answer these questions. Rather, in a better way, it only nudges us to think them through. In this lies the biggest victory of the makers.

Elle and Emmet sit across from one another at a restaurant. The background is washed in blue light. Elle wears a pink dress.
Credit – King’s Musical Theatre Society

KMT Society’s spring production is a delight, especially for someone who spent much of his middle and high school performing as a lead in musicals. Watching the palpable joy and collective effort KMT Society devoted to this large-scale, high-quality production, I missed the stage. The no-holds-barred dollops of queerness that the makers infuse in this narrative rightfully elicited peals of laughter and cheers of joy from the audience members at Greenwood Theatre. I cannot wait to see what this exciting bunch of creative people get to for their next production. This was a joy to watch – through and through! 

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