'Legally Blonde' changes rules for legit reviewers

The upcoming West End opening of “Legally Blonde” on Jan. 13 is already notable for one industry reason: It’s attempting to rewrite London’s reviewing policy.

Gotham critics see a show at one of several designated press previews. They then have anywhere from one to several days before filing copy under embargo until curtain-time on opening night. London critics, by contrast, all attend opening night. And on high-profile shows, those writing for the city’s many daily papers must file almost immediately, with an 11 p.m. deadline in most cases.

With a 7 p.m. curtain-up (usually delayed by guests and paparazzi), that means rushing to a 500-word judgment often in little more than an hour — sometimes less.

Sonia Friedman, lead producer on “Legally Blonde,” is testing the Gotham system.

“Were it up to me, I would have gone over to the New York system a long time ago,” Friedman tells Variety. “Had critics themselves not come to us about this, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but the London openings diary is very full, newspaper deadlines are moving earlier and earlier, and more and more critics are requesting to be allowed in early.”

The Gotham system also sidesteps the problem of seeing a London opening night, with a house packed almost entirely by press, investors, agents, friends and relations.

“This way, critics will see ‘Legally Blonde’ with a real audience, people who have chosen to buy a ticket,” Friedman says. “Traditionally, London press nights have a totally artificial atmosphere. It’s not just about the build-up and nerves on stage, it’s that critics are reviewing what is almost always a very different show from the one the night before or the one following.

“What performers get back from the audience is 50% of the show,” she continues. “They need to feed off a real audience. It’s my job as a producer to ensure they have the best possible chance of giving the best performance.”

The speed at which daily reviewers have to file can often lead to a disparity between those notices and the later ones from Sunday critics, who have time to digest what they’ve seen and deliver more considered responses.

That’s certainly the case with the West End transfer of Debbie Allen’s largely recast, all-black update of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which played Broadway in spring 2008.

The dailies were upbeat. James Earl Jones’ powerhouse Big Daddy and Adrian Lester’s thrillingly intense Brick walked away with strong notices, and there was unanimous praise for the detailed supporting performances of Peter de Jersey and Nina Sosanya as grasping and gasping Gooper and Mae.

The Sundays, however, were less enthusiastic, particularly about Allen’s direction. As the Observer wrote, “You could hardly say the roof was hot here, more lukewarm.” The Sunday Times called it “a middling production that, for all the rather self-conscious onstage steaminess, and a couple of fine performances, never really catches fire.”

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