Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2002
There is one particular Tony Award-winning musical that I go to see every time it is mounted in reasonable driving distance simply because I have yet to see a production that explains to me why it is a Tony Award-winning musical and I am going to sit through evening after painful evening until I find a cast and a director who can make me like this darned show. Dirty Blonde by Claudia Shear could easily have become a similar obsession but I am happy to report it was solved painlessly on the second try. The excellent cast and Director Samuel Buggeln at StageWorks understood this show, and now I understand it too. I am greatly relieved.
Dirty Blonde is a play about Mae West, and a play about a contemporary couple whose mutual interest in West brings them together. When I saw the play last month at the Theater Barn, I found the contemporary couple’s story intrusive and uninteresting, but now I understand that they bring an outsider’s perspective and an historical distance to the life and career of the self-obsessed West that a straight biographical effort couldn’t achieve. And actors Robin Leslie Brown and Christopher Swan made me like the couple and understand their relationship to each other, as well as what drew them to admire West.
No one plays just one role in Dirty Blonde. Brown plays the contemporary heroine, Jo, and also appears as Mae West at various ages and stages in her career. Author Claudia Shear, who performed this dual role in the acclaimed New York City production, is a New York girl, Mae West was a New York girl, I am a New York girl, and if Robin Leslie Brown ain’t a New York girl she sure knows how to act like one. That shared “ethnicity,” if you will, between Jo and Mae made all the difference for me. Shear has cleverly interwoven the story of Jo’s discovery of West’s persona with the history of West’s invention of her inimitable self so that the moment that Brown is revealed in full West regalia makes the audience understand just what made West so great and what keeps her a public favorite today.
Swan’s main character, Charlie, is a film archivist who, as a teenager, actually meets Mae West, then well along in years. She makes a gift to him of one of her gowns, and from that time on he finds pleasure in dressing up as her in the privacy of his own home. Swan shows us that the dressing up is not just about feeling sexy, it is about feeling free to feel sexy. Swan helped me like and understand Charlie, which is vital because Shear uses the character to help us understand West.
Tom Frey and Swan play all the other men in West’s life, which is no small task as might be imagined. I enjoyed them both almost all of the time. Swan didn’t quite hit it as W.C. Fields, but how many people do you know who can do a good Fields AND a good West? Frey pleased me very much with a human and three-dimensional portrayal of female impersonator Ed Hearn, and I laughed out loud at his shuffling, mumbling has-been routine for Joe Frisco. Pay attention to his energetic piano stylings before the curtain, they are even more enjoyable once Frey’s other talents are unveiled.
This is a tricky show to design a set and costumes for because the action jumps around so much in time and place, but Kevin Taylor, who gets both scenic and lighting design credit has done well utilizing his lights as an integral part of many of the simple settings which consist mostly of a few chairs and some sliding wall panels. Vilma Mare’s costumes are good and they allow Brown switch fairly seamlessly from Mae to Jo and back again.
So, do I take back my flamboyant remark of last month that if Dirty Blonde was one of the best new plays of 2000 that 2000 was a very bad year for plays? No. I am still not ready to leap up and agree with that accolade bestowed by a New York theatre critic. Shear’s script is better than I first thought, but it was very obviously created as a star vehicle to showcase her unique talents as author, actress, and singer. Without her on stage the magic is lost and the flaws in the writing become evident.
When I first heard about Dirty Blonde, a show about a woman I admired written by another woman I admired, I was very excited to see it. And now I am happy to tell you to go and see it. This is a good production. You will be entertained.
The StageWorks (518-822-9667) production of Dirty Blonde runs through July 28 at the North Pointe Cultural Center (518-758-9234) on Rt. 9 in Kinderhook, NY. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission. Some adult language and drug use. If you wouldn’t take your kids to a Mae West movie, don’t take them to this. Best enjoyed by ages 12 and up.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002