Opening night seemed problematic for the actors and crew. This is a very busy play. There are lots of short scenes that require moving furniture and changing costumes and the atmosphere felt rather fraught. Some potential problems were headed off before they became issues in performance with projections to orient us to time and place, and a particularly clever solution to a scene where Furlow must “be” both West and her other character, present-day Jo who is dressing as West for Halloween. Hood keeps her behind a screen where she can change and use both voices while the audience sees Weller and Reidy coming and going to converse. Other mishaps such as a wardrobe malfunction (gracefully handled) and problems with the sound system (seemingly turned off for the second act) were out of anyone’s control. However, those can and will be remedied.
There are also some grand scenes, and ironically, they are the ones that are most self-consciously awkward. Reidy and Weller are hilarious in a drag number (“Oh My, How We Posé”) though neither looks at all feminine (well, maybe Weller—just a little) nor can they sing or dance. The “finale” is another example where the show works well, as are some of the shorter scenes such as when Reidy’s character Charlie shows Jo some wrestling holds. Furlow handles West’s numbers adroitly because she knows how to shake what her mama gave her, and that was the real source of West’s rather baffling appeal. But Furlow and Hood are also wise enough to play up West as a smart “tough girl” who wants to be famous—craves it, in fact—and won’t quit until she succeeds. The unfortunate flip side of that drive is that she didn’t know when it was time for last call and hung around in the public eye until she became a freakish caricature within a caricature.
The story itself is simple even if the execution is not. Jo is a Mae West fan who visits her crypt on a recent birthday where she meets Charlie, a lonely film archivist who had actually met West when he was 17 and the lady was well past her prime. The two tentatively bond and start to form a relationship over their shared passion for the platinum icon who referred to herself as a “dirty blonde.” (Naturally, she made a joke out of that: “I chose to go platinum, but I’m really just a dirty blonde.”) Their scenes together are interspersed with West’s story from her teens in Vaudeville and through her Broadway and movie incarnations until near her death at 87.
Playwright Shear plays up West’s feminist bona fides: Mae did things her way in a man’s world and didn’t take any crap off anybody. She actually became notorious before she was famous, as she was convicted of “corrupting the morals of youth” in her play unsubtly titled Sex and given a fine and ten-day sentence. She created her “Diamond Lil” character for a 1928 play, and essentially played her—what we think of as “Mae West”—for the rest of her career.
West was married to Frank Wallace (Weller) at 18, her Vaudeville partner but they were divorced and she never remarried. She apparently really did live like a man of the times, taking charge of her own business and pleasure. She was 38 years old by the time she made her first film for Paramount, and shortly thereafter scored an Academy Award nomination for She Done Him Wrong (1933) with the young Cary Grant. Furlow does the famous scene on the front stoop (“Why dontcha come up sometime, see me. I’m home most every night,” etc.) with the recorded voice of Grant. It’s an effective moment.
West is a sad old broad the last couple of decades of her life. She still cares deeply what her “fans” think of her and even made a film (Sextette) at 85 in which she was absurdly cast as a young bride. But if she was any more ridiculous than she ever had been, she didn’t act like she knew it. Something tells me that she couldn’t have been such a driven, brilliant businesswoman and not have been less delusional than that, but perhaps she was. She turned down Sunset Boulevard after all because she thought she was far too young to play the washed up silent screen legend Norma Desmond who was 50-ish when she herself was 57 years old. She always claimed she “look[ed] like a woman of 26.”
West fans should enjoy Dirty Blonde, and I imagine that after the opening night kinks are worked out, the actors will look more like they’re having a good time too.