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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Dirty Blonde

Also see Susan's review of A Passion for Justice: An Encounter with Clarence Darrow

Dirty Blonde
Emily Skinner and Hugh Nees
In popular culture, Mae West holds a unique position—one that usually involves a corset, a double entendre and unflappable self-confidence. Even now, almost 30 years after her death, she remains a model of self-awareness, a woman who never cared to be anything other than who and what she was. Dirty Blonde, Claudia Shear's play with music and the season opener at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, celebrates Mae through the eyes of two besotted fans, with a top-notch cast and streamlined direction by Jeremy Skidmore.

Brassy, curvaceous singing actress Emily Skinner is perfect casting for Mae in her prime, but she's almost scary when she transforms herself into the star late in life, still believing in her personal charisma against all odds. Skinner is equally at home as Jo, an aspiring actress who admires Mae for being so comfortable with her own physicality.

When Jo meets shy film historian Charlie (Hugh Nees) at Mae's grave in Brooklyn, they become friends through their shared love. Nees is appealing in several roles, and J. Fred Shiffman provides invaluable assistance as several men in Mae's life, ranging from scrappy vaudevillians and flouncing drag performers to retired boxers.

The fascination of Shear's play is that it shows how Mae West developed the persona that became immediately recognizable throughout her life and beyond. It follows young Mae through her vaudeville career, concentrating on the taboos she broke: she brought African-American dance styles and the presentational aspects of drag queens into the mainstream and in return faced arrest on obscenity charges and later, in Hollywood, censorship by the Hays Office—but audiences loved her.

Daniel Conway's scenic design and Dan Covey's lighting design in the small ARK Theatre employ scrims, projections and shabby false prosceniums to evoke more than one era with minimal clutter or time taken up with scene changes. In contrast, Helen Huang has designed sumptuous, gorgeous gowns that live up to the legend of Mae West.

Signature Theatre
Dirty Blonde
August 11th October 4th

A play with music by Claudia Shear
Conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapine
Original song "Dirty Blonde" by Bob Stillman
Jo, Mae West: Emily Skinner
Charlie and others: Hugh Nees
Frank Wallace, Joe Frisco, and others: J. Fred Schiffman
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore
Music direction by Gabriel Mangiante
Musical staging by Matthew Gardiner
ARK Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or www.signature-theatre.org


Photo: Scott Suchman


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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