Review: (Vancouver) Theatre Under the Stars - How to Succeed...; Legally Blonde
How To Succeed... (photo by Tim Matheson)
O...M...G... How to Succeed succeeds, but Blonde has more fun! by Jay Catterson
Another season of Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) has arrived in Vancouver, and in fine form, I might add. As is mostly the case, TUTS mounts two productions each season, alternating on different nights; this year, the Malkin Bowl stage in Stanley park hosts both the 1961 corporate musical satire How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and the book-turned-hit movie-turned hit Broadway show Legally Blonde: The Musical.
How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, directed by Sarah Rodgers, was a good production overall, but was far from perfect. Rodgers' direction was tight and Shelley Stewart Hunt's choreography was peppy, plus the delightfully colourful costume design by Chris Sinosich truly captured the fashion trends of 60's corporate culture. The leads, for the most part, were strong, and handled the classic score by Frank Loesser and the comical book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert well. Andrew Cownden had a unique charm and a distinct crooner's warble to carry off the career-driven hero, Finch (although at times he did struggle with some of the loftier notes of his numbers). Georgia Swinton was equally as charming and vocally stellar as Finch's love interest, Rosemary. Other notable standouts include Cailin Stadnyk as the hilariously ditsy bombshell Hedy, Joel Wirkkunen as company president Biggley and Caitlin Clugston as the sarcastically hilarious secretary, Smitty.
But as fun as this show was, it was hard not to notice its glaring flaws. The set design by Drew Facey was disappointing seeing that it ripped off the recent Broadway revival's modular hexagonal pastiche (Don't believe me? Just Google it!). In fact, I have never witnessed such a blatant piece of stage design plagiarism in all the shows that I've experienced. Furthermore, the female ensemble was vocally stronger than the male ensemble, and the harmonic dissonance was noticeable in several of the large production numbers. Even the leads had trouble harmonizing; for example, although Victor Hunter handled the role of Bud Frump well, he had a hard time finding his key every time he had to harmonize with Cownden and Swinton (especially in the Act One Finale). And there's no denying Jennifer Suratos as the soulful secretary Miss Jones is vocally talented, but she was ear-gratingly shrill and struggled to stay on key while scatting during the Act Two showstopper "Brotherhood of Man". But most audiences will find themselves entertained by the comedic charm of the source material and the energetic choreography of this production. Overall, this How to Succeed does succeed as a fun night out at the theatre, but quite frankly it needs to try harder. (cont'd)
Legally Blonde (photo by Tim Matheson)
But omigod, you guys! Legally Blonde: The Musical, based on the novel by Amanda Brown and the popular 2001 movie starring Reese Witherspoon, was spectacular. Surprisingly so. Like totally! Director and choreographer Valerie Easton along with musical director Danny Balkwill have to be commended on truly turning out a dazzling production. All the leads are strong in acting and vocals, and tackle the deceptively perky, yet vocally challenging score by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin without faltering. Breanne Arrigo's turn as sorority queen turned Harvard Law student Elle Woods is a sight to behold, for her vocals truly shine brighter than her character's zoom-whitened smile and bedazzled outfits. She also brings a likeable sincerity to the role, and succeeds in making us empathize with her character. Arrigo's Elle is equally matched with Scott Walters as Emmett, who radiates boy-next door charm armed with an earnestly pure tone. Other cast standouts include Warren Kimmel as the ruthless legal professor Callahan, Emily Henney as the spunky sorority sister Serena, Katie Murphy as the physically and vocally stunning fitness guru Brooke, Peter Cumins as Elle's ex boyfriend Warner, and Cathy Wilmot as the scenestealing hairdresser Paulette. The ensemble is tighter than Ricky Martin's buns, and they impressively turn out those complex dance moves and challenging vocals with ease.
Now although Facey clearly ripped off the set design from Broadway's How To Succeed, he makes up for his blunder with his simplistic set design for Legally Blonde; from the pink paint, brush-stroke design of the Delta Nu Sorority house to the stark wood-laden benches of the court house, Facey's sets effectively work amidst all the fluid scene changes of this spunky show. And Easton's jaw-droppingly thrilling choreography truly dazzles, especially in the big cheerleading climax of "What You Want" and the cardio fitness video Act Two opener "Whipped Into Shape", complete with literally breathtaking jump roping. From start to finish, this production flaunts its blonde ambition and glittery pink fun with unabashed energy and wit, and is the definite highlight of the TUTS season. To quote the show, Legally Blonde gets "snaps all around" from this critic, and is my pick for best summer show in Vancouver.