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Legally Blonde the Musical review at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London – ‘everything about this feels fresh’

Abbie Chambers and cast in Legally Blonde the Musical at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London. Photo: Darren Bell Abbie Chambers and cast in Legally Blonde the Musical at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London. Photo: Darren Bell
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Elle Woods, the heroine of Legally Blonde whose signature colour is pink, seems as if she’s an airhead blonde, but is seriously underestimated and becomes a Harvard Law graduate. I’ve committed the same offence of underrating the intelligence of this 2007 Broadway musical version of the 2001 film.

When I saw it first on Broadway, I thought it was just popcorn in the senses of both the syllables that make up that word. When it opened in the West End in early 2010, a star-making performance from Sheridan Smith made me think she was the reason for its success.

But if the show looked to me like it was pure fluff, a buoyant and youthful new production at Highgate makes me finally realise it is actually something else: a natural successor to 2003’s Wicked in its portrait of female empowerment, but with a far wittier, edgier script and a frequently stronger pastiche pop score. Laurence O’Keeffe and Nell Benjamin’s music is a bouncy blend of instantly memorable tunes and contemporary references, which musical director Matt Abrams updates here to include even a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda.

But then everything about this production feels fresh, and in the tiny traverse surrounds of this Highgate community theatre – where this is its 19th annual Christmas musical – that’s what it gets: a show that’s not about big effects but massive heart.

Recent London School of Musical Theatre graduate Abbie Chambers makes her professional debut as Elle with poise and wit that recalls a young Jane Krakowski. There’s also great support from the hilarious Jodie Jacobs as hairdresser Paulette, who befriends Elle and helps empower her, and the striking Chris Durtnal as the UPS delivery man whom Paulette makes a play for.

Verdict
John Plews, co-founder of Upstairs at the Gatehouse, directs the venue's 19th annual Christmas musical — and it's the best I've seen there yet
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