Future stars to shine in youth theatre production of Legally Blonde

Derry's Millennium Forum turns its attention to Hollywood with this musical adaptation of a turn of the century comedy classic

Audiences have revelled in the archetypal 'dumb blonde' for decades, from Marilyn Monroe's career defining role in The Seven Year Itch and that subway grate scene, to the cringeworthy Simple Life antics of Paris Hilton which brought us kicking and screaming into the early noughties. Because a woman can't care about her appearance and an education, right? 

Then along came Hollywood's enduring sweetheart Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in the unforgettable Legally Blonde, to throw shade at this tired-old stereotype in a flurry of fuchsia-saturated fabulousness.

Just 18 short years since the unlikely feminist icon hit our screens and 12 years since the musical, written by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, took to Broadway - Legally Blonde the Musical is set to grace the stage of the Millennium Forum for the first time from July 24-27. It'll be performed by the Millennium Forum Youth Musical Theatre Group by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Derry City & Strabane District Council.

Culture NI caught up with Elle and love interest Emmet, played by Niamh Long (18) and Robert Kelly (19), to discuss mastering the 'bend and snap' and the springboard to success this youth project provides. No strangers to leading roles nor the Millennium Forum Youth productions, these performers have a long list of achievements and impressive CVs that belie their youth, not to mention heaps of talent to boot. 

Dropping in on rehearsals on a clammy weekday afternoon, I'm lucky enough to get a snippet of this high-octane performance from a cast whose ages range from 16 to early 20s. I can't quite believe they've only had six days of rehearsals- I almost feel guilty for prying them from the studio. With only one week of rehearsals left before showtime, Robert and Niamh assure me that the production team are putting them through the paces. 

Learning dance routines, dialogue and musical score in such a short space of time is a massive feat for any production- being able to pull this off year upon year, is testament to the maturity and skill of this young cast and the professionalism of the Forum's production team.

But Kelly and Long take it all in their stride, assuring me that they 'thrive off the pressure', after all opportunities such as these are like 'gold-dust.' Kelly, now a dab-hand, tells me this is his fifth youth production at the Forum. A music student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Robert has already garnered critical success, winning an AIMS award as Best Male Voice in his portrayal of Marius in Les Misérables. Likewise, this marks Niamh's third youth production before she leaves to study Dance and Musical Theatre at London's prestigious Urdang Academy. 

So what drew them to audition for Legally Blonde this year? With a background in performing the staples of musical theatre such as Cats and Les Mis, Kelly says he jumped at the chance of something a little bit different. 

Cats

The Millennium Forum drew acclaim for last year's youth production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats


'That's what I love about the Forum, they aren't afraid to branch out,' he says. 'It definitely allows us to develop our skills as performers. We’re not just sticking to perfecting the ‘Golden Age’ musicals, they are always willing to explore new things.'

For Long, it was the richer storyline and chance for character development that the musical brings. 'It’s incredible how they've taken the film and made it so much more. When we think of musicals, Legally Blonde isn’t necessarily the first that springs to mind. 

But there is so much more to Elle in the stage production – [film studio] MGM didn't give her enough credit. She really steps up and faces her challenges head on, proving you're more than just your looks,' she added. 

Retaining all the film's iconic moments from 'bend and snap' to the bunny suit scene, the added clout of theatre performance makes this musical much more than your average chick-flick. The development of characters, particularly Emmet, aids the plotline and the freedom of theatre allows the cast to explore the underlying serious subject matter in depth.

For the leading couple, the pivotal scene in Professor Callahan's office has proved the most challenging. Peeling back the hilarious pink façade to reveal a message of female empowerment, this stripped-back juncture allows the vocal prowess of the two leads to shine and lends itself to the poignancy of the moment.

For Kelly, the play's focal point is particularly pertinent today in the era of #MeToo, 'It's a difficult but important message to deliver. Emmet's mindset and indeed that of most men is 'we'll fix it' '. Admitting a dearth of know-how when it comes to fighting sexism, Kelly maintains that initiating a conversation is a start.

'When the film first aired, speaking out about harassment was relatively unheard of – with awareness and the #MeToo movement that's thankfully beginning to change. It's a message we all need to hear regardless of gender.'

In typical musical theatre fashion, it's never too late for a happy ending and Elle bounces back with her characteristic positivity. Long explains the inclusion of a 'completely random' riverdance adds much needed comic relief to the scene and is guaranteed to have audiences tapping their feet. 

Challenging stereotypes in the typical Legally Blonde manner, the musical adaptation provides something for everyone- breaking the confines of the 'chick-flick' and opening it up to a wider audience.

Praising the team at the Forum for this opportunity for first-hand professional experience, the cast are all too aware that this opens doors elsewhere with previous youth performers taking up posts on the West End and gaining recognition in the world of the theatre. 

Heralded nationwide, the Millennium Forum Youth Production allows emerging young talents such as Niamh and Robert to truly flourish, shining a spotlight on the wealth of extraordinary talent in Derry~Londonderry and the North West. Wise far beyond their years, their passion for their art no doubt guarantees another stellar Forum production. 

So if you want to see the homegrown musical theatre 'big names' of tomorrow or if you just want to kick back and enjoy a brilliant night's craic, Legally Blonde at the Forum won't disappoint. In the immortal words of Elle Woods, 'It's like senior year, only funner!'

Legally Blonde the Musical is at the Millennium Forum July 24-27. Tickets can be purchased online at www.millenniumforum.com/tickets or call the Box Office on 028 7126 4455.