Sunday, April 13, 2003

Dirty Blonde (Cleveland Play House)

'DIRTY BLONDE' totally delights at CPH

When I'm good, I'm very good," Mae West says with a wink, "but when I'm bad, I'm better."

When you attend ‘DIRTY BLONDE,’ now on stage at The Cleveland Play House, and you should, you’ll laugh and thoroughly enjoy yourself as you peer beneath the surface and meet the woman that was Mae West, the performer who became a caricature of herself. ‘DIRTY BLONDE’ earned five Tony nominations for its successful Broadway run in the1999-2000 season.

The story line centers on following two of West's fans as they discover a bit of the Mae West swagger in their own shy and lonely lives and allow the audience to peek inside West’s life. Charlie is a film librarian who met West in his teens and was given one of her beautiful gowns. Jo is a struggling actress who meets Charlie at West’s gravesite. What follows is a sweet love story that gives us a full view of Mae West, her songs and her life.

Why was West such a hit? As one researcher says, “Instead of hiding the fact that she was all about sex, she learned to play it up. She became this sexy creature who would always be in control of the men around her. She uses her sexuality to maintain control.”

West’s career, which spanned the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s was fodder for plenty of Hollywood gossip. Speculation flew that West’s personal life was as sexy as her roles. Eventually, the actress turned from a temptress in her prime to a lampoon of herself in her old age.

Be aware that the play contains nudity, well, one boob gets flashed, and like West, herself, the lines and double-takes are full of innuendo. The bottom line, however, is that it has a fair amount of raunch contained in a tender little love story.

Claudia Shear’s play has been called clever, witty, intelligent, touching, entertaining, unpredictable. It’s that and more under the able direction of Peter Hackett and a wonderful cast.

There are only three performers and they are all brilliantly versatile. Elizabeth Meadows Rouse does a great Mae West imitation, while also portraying Jo, the frustrated actress wanna be. She looks enough like the legend to be mistaken for her, especially when she struts around in the hallmark sequinced gowns, large feather crested hats and blonde wigs.

Tom Frey is wonderful as “The Man.” He plays the piano, sings, dances, switches characters, does shticks with the audience, plays straight and gay with ease. He’s in his CPH debut and deserves to be asked back again and again.

Nick Sullivan plays Charlie, the librarian, among other roles which include being a star struck teenager. He shadows each character perfectly, making each of them unique. He is a very talented performer who brings a quirky humor to his roles.

The staging of the play is clever. We clearly know and understand what is taking place. This is difficult because the script keeps jumping in time and there are numerous characters. The scenes blend seemlessly together in a way that aids us to keep track of the action. The lighting and set designs aid in developing the entire mood.

Unlike some plays which have their slow moments, "DIRTY BLONDE" starts off with a bang and never lets up. Ms. Shear is deserving of every bit of praise that she has received.

Capsule Judgement: The play, which runs about 1 hour and 45 minute, with no intermission, is one of the few highlights of this year’s CPH season, proving that it, like West, when it’s good, it’s very, very good. Go see ‘DIRTY BLONDE,’ it’s CPH at its best.