Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), 16 Feb – 18 Mar, 2023
Book : Joseph Fields, Anita Loos
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Leo Robin
Director: Richard Carroll
Cast: Octavia Barron-Martin, Thomas Campbell, Ruby Clark, Adam Di Martino, Emily Havea, Georgina Hopson, Tomáš Kantor, Leah Lim, Tomas Parrish, Matthew Predny, Monica Sayers
Images by John McCrae

Theatre review

It is the Roaring Twenties, and two single women are on a luxury cruise ship sailing from New York to Paris. Dorothy just wants to have a good time, but Lorelei is determined to find herself a rich husband. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may be most remembered as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest cinematic moments, but its predecessor was this musical by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos, which was in turn based on Loos’ own novel. Light and frothy, with generous portions of slapstick, it brims with post-war optimism, and expresses a kind of anticipation about all the irresistible promises of capitalism.

The key sequence featuring the legendary “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” can be taken as ironic, or in fact be read as being quite earnest. In 2023, we understand that in a dog-eat-dog world, especially one that disadvantages women, will of course see someone like Lorelei focussing her energies on money, rather than affairs of the heart. She wants to survive, and knows all the levers to pull, to make things work for her. Performed on this occasion by Georgina Hopson, it is those darker dimensions of girls’ best friend that emerge. Hopson’s performance of a very extended version of the song, is thrilling and unequivocally spectacular. All faculties of the theatrical arts converge flawlessly for a few minutes, to deliver something explosive and transcendent. The rest of the production however, leaves quite a bit to be desired.

As the original writing approaches its centenary, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves to have lost its charm and humour. What might have been considered goofy and whimsical, is now simply silly and lazy. Most of the songs are lacklustre, with a distinct soullessness that leaves us cold. Extraordinarily exhilarating musical direction by Victoria Falconer, does marvellously to lift our spirits during interludes between, but the songs themselves remain uninspired.

Like Falconer, all of the cast and crew give their conspicuous best to the production. Director Richard Carroll goes to great lengths to keep pacing taut, and to make all the jokes more sophisticated than were ever intended. Daniel Potra’s set design gives a real sense of the razzle-dazzle, and lights by Benjamin Brockman delivers us all the dynamics missing from the source material, as well as being relentlessly flattering on the cast. Costumes by Angela White seems to make the bold decision to depart from the 1920s, as it draws influence from virtually every decade of the last century.

The role of Dorothy was always no match for the eponymous blonde, but Emily Havea’s resolve to bring the character into a modern age, is certainly admirable. The women’s love interests are played by Tomáš Kantor and Matthew Predny, both delightful personalities, and convincing in their efforts to win affections. Octavia Barron-Martin and Thomas Campbell demonstrate deep commitment to the comedy, making us laugh in spite of the banal dialogue. Leah Lim is especially strong when given the opportunity to showcase her dance abilities; her synergy with choreographer Sally Dashwood elevates the show considerably, even if their contributions bear little relevance to the central plot.

It should be no surprise that men would prefer Lorelei. Even though she is destined to come out on top, it is her dedication to playing by their rules, that turns them on. Lorelei might win, but the point is that, she obeys them. Women game the system every day, but in the process, we often find ourselves inflicting the same harm, that we accuse men of doing. It is a mystery if Lorelei uses her new-found wealth, after the story concludes, for good or evil, but choices are certainly available to her. Power is designed to oppress, but it can also be transformed into something that can be shared and distributed. After Lorelei attains her safe harbour, one would hope, that she keeps the gates open, for others to follow.