When Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre opened in October 2010, its marketing tagline talked of “Bringing the West End to Waterside”. As it launches its second spring season, that promise is certainly being fulfilled: in May, it will play host to the Lincoln Center’s revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific that recently played at the Barbican, whose stars (including Samantha Womack, Dan Koek and Alex Fearns) will all be joining the production in Aylesbury. The season will also see Hull Truck’s production of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and the National Theatre’s Travelling Light, starring Anthony Sher.
And it is in evidence this week, too, as the touring production of Legally Blonde – The Musical comes to town while its big West End sorority sister is still running (for now) at the Savoy Theatre. Last week, of course, the Olivier award-winning West End show posted closing notices. That must be frustrating for Aylesbury in a couple of ways: first, the show they’ve been promoting has been in the theatrical headlines because it’s not been doing well enough to stay open. Also, because there’s nothing like a closing notice to indicate the possibility of cut-price tickets for the London show. With Chiltern Railways’ annoying-but-better-than-most train service into the capital, the touring version of Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s musical faces stiff competition from its West End counterpart.
The good news is that, one or two patchy spots apart, it withstands the comparison well.
For anybody who doesn’t know the film (itself based on a novel by Amanda Brown), it tells the tale of a relentlessly perky, pink-clad fashion merchandising student who sets herself the goal of enrolling into Harvard Law school in order to win back the boyfriend who dumped her on the night she thought he would propose. And to be honest, if you haven’t seen the film, then (a) do I know you? and (b) the first twenty minutes or so won’t be the clearest representation of that situation. Both the songs and Heather Hach’s book broadly assume that the audience has a passing knowledge of the original.
And those first scenes also show the most visible difference between the West End and touring versions: the set. The Savoy can house large staircases, exteriors, etc., and utilise hydraulics and trapdoors that a production destined for multiple auditoria just can’t rely upon. However, while some compromises have to be made (the entrance to Elle’s sorority house bedroom is a particular disappointment), much of David Rockwell’s original Broadway set design is present.
What makes or breaks a show, though, is the cast. When it opened at the Savoy, Sheridan Smith took the lead role of Elle Woods and crafted a beautiful portrayal of a smart but unapplied woman who overcomes perceptions of her – in the minds of others, and indeed herself – that deservedly won her the Olivier last year. It’s no surprise that other actresses have struggled to play the role as strongly as she did, but Faye Brooks comes remarkably close. Similarly, as Elle’s mentor and eventual love interest Emmett, Iwan Lewis doesn’t quite match the performance of Alex Gaumond, who originated the role in London – but he comes close and brings out the dry comedy the character requires in an extremely likeable manner.
Castwise, the biggest disappointment comes from Les Dennis as Professor Callahan. He’s recently joined the cast, so it may have been first night nerves – but his Callahan is less the ruthless shark, more a teddy bear who occasionally bares his teeth. It’s a dramatic choice that may have been more effective if his performance in his musical numbers had been more impressive – at one point during Whipped Into Shape his timing was all over the place, and during both that song and Act 1’s Blood in the Water the pitch got away from him in places. And Ray Quinn struggles to make the naturally thin character of Warner Huntington III anything more than the cipher it is – but I’ve seen two different actors play the same role in the West End and he’s by no means the worst.
Actually that sums up this cast pretty well – given the number of cast changes the Savoy theatre has seen, this touring company may not quite reach the heights of the original London cast, but compared to a long-running West End cast they can certainly hold their heads high. It’s a terrific show and the energy of this cast contributes the lion’s share of the audience’s evident enjoyment.
And one more point of comparison – in Aylesbury’s new auditorium, I found the acoustics a marked improvement to those in the Savoy. That may sound a small matter, but there are several points where the West End’s cast of perky young women aren’t always audible, which I’ve always found frustrating. So it was good to hear the difference a modern auditorium can make in this regard.
Ultimately, even if pink isn’t your signature colour, you can’t fail to warm to the age-old message “to thine own self, be true” delivered with such joy and warmth. It’s like feminism, but funner.