In an era of overnight celebrities and reality stars, it is intriguing to revisit the story of a true American icon like Mae West. Claudia Shear’s Dirty Blonde tells the story of how Mae West created her identity and how it affects a pair of ardent fans. It’s a revealing, funny, and surprisingly touching story that receives a top-notch production at Signature Theatre.
Mae West (Emily Skinner) is introduced as a “tough girl,” the kind who doesn’t care if you’re shocked and doesn’t want to be taken home to your mother. We first meet her as a brassy 18 year-old vaudeville player willing to try anything to get attention, including some scandalous shimmying and a wardrobe malfunction. Over time Mae learns what works and perfects the persona that finally propelled her to stage and film stardom at the age of thirty-five as Diamond Lil.
The biographical tale is deftly interwoven with the story of two fixated fans who meet at her grave. Jo (also played by Emily Skinner) is an office temp and aspiring actress, while Charlie (Hugh Nees) is a film nerd who works at the public library. When Charlie was seventeen he made a pilgrimage to California and eventually met an aged and vain Mae West, who formed a friendship with her adoring devotee.
Skinner radiates stardom when she dons the fabulous Mae West gowns assembled by Helen Huang, and shines brightly when flawlessly performing several songs as Mae West, mostly drawn from her career, and “Dirty Blonde”, an original song written for this show by Bob Stillman. The title of the song and the show comes from a classic Mae West quote: “I made myself platinum, but I was born a dirty blonde.”
While many theatregoers may be attracted by the biographical hook, the play’s real heart comes from the relationship of the two fans and what they each draw from their love of Mae West. Hugh Nees gives a powerful and genuine portrayal of a man who finds comfort in his Mae West fixation while tormented by the potential reaction of others to it. He struggles to fight through his awkwardness and find the courage to bond with a potential soul mate. Skinner may be a little too attractive and cheery at times as Jo, but the two have a nice rapport when trading favorite Mae West lines or making a relationship-changing trip to a disco.
Jeremy Skidmore directs Dirty Blonde in a skillful and fluid manner. A crucial moment where the two stories come together with a costume change is perfectly staged. He also draws finely defined performances from the cast, which also includes J. Fred Shiffman capably playing multiple men in Mae West’s life.
Well before the end of Dirty Blonde we are given a glimpse at both the genius and the sadness of Mae West, as well as an interesting relationship between two flawed friends. The later part of the play may go on a little longer than necessary, but as Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” Signature Theatre’s intimate and skillful production of Dirty Blonde is indisputably wonderful.
A Play with Music by Claudia Shear
Conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapine
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
DCTS review – TOP PICK!