Famous for her uninhibited sexuality and provocative double entendres, Mae West was way ahead of her time. Somewhat of a cross between Madonna and Pam Anderson, we’re never quite sure who the real Mae West is – we do know gentlemen quiver, get weak at the knees in her well endowed and curvaceous presence. Or maybe she’s a bawdy female version of Orson Welles: Vaudeville Performer, Playwright, Broadway Sensation, Movie Star…
Dirty Blonde, which had its first staging off-Broadway in 2000, receives a light-hearted treatment at the San Jose Stage Company. It’s an easy romp, thankfully more concerned with zingers, laugh-out-loud slapstick, and matters of the heart, than any kind of layered expose. What do you expect, this is Mae West!
When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.
Although not a musical, being “a play with music” we get to watch Mae (the talented Judith Miller) purr, strut and flirt her way through five songs.
The play is presented using clever, parallel stories which allow us to live with Mae in the past, but also re-discover her in the present. Alternating between the two worlds gives ample opportunity for the actors to showcase their chops in multiple roles. And many, many different costumes during the two hour show.
The strength of the play comes from its three actors. Judith Miller (who I last saw as the lead in the wonderful Always….Patsy Cline), Martin Rojas-Dietrich, and Colin Thomson all deliver entertaining, committed performances. Martin plays six different roles, while Colin trumps all with a dizzying nine roles. We’d never know it based on the on-stage calm, but back-stage must be a frenetic place.
The set is simple and perhaps a little rough, with unfinished bits, such as exposed two-by-fours supporting two carpeted risers. Drapes frame the stage, with a piano to the left, which gets plenty of rambunctious action. A projection screen helps transform us to the streets of New York, to Mae’s stately home, and to a sterile library.
Rick Singleton directs, for the 25th time in the Stage’s history, and shows a deft hand at keeping the action moving, and making the most of the stage. Actors effectively move up it towards the audience, with well-timed spot lights adding dramatic punch to monologues. A playful wrestling match mid-way through is a hoot.
I’m not sure that Mae West is the most compelling of personas, however, which prevents me from getting too excited about the subject matter. It’s decent, but Mae, like the script, is a bit of a one-trick pony. The show could be 3o minutes shorter, and be better for it. Also, there is a distinct lack of tension, or conflict, which results in an extended party with a couple of romantic interludes. Not necessarily a bad thing; just a fairly straight, lounge-inspired production. I suspect that’s exactly how Mae would want it.
San Joe Stage Company continues an interesting, compelling season. Every seat in the house is great. And the quality is high. Dirty Blonde is decent entertainment, but I do pine somewhat for more innovative fare such as the stellar The Pillowman that kicked off the season.
The Stage, San Jose
3 out of 5 stars
Directed by Rick Singleton
Starring Judith Miller, Martin Rojas-Dietrich, Colin Thomson
Through May 2, 2010