Go West

The legendary Mae West is alive and well and vamping across the boards at Stages Repertory Theatre in Dirty Blonde, a funny, tender production about America's first out-there sex goddess and the fans who love her still. Written by Claudia Shear, the hybrid musical travels from past to present and back again with slippery ease, weaving West's fascinating "tough girl" history into a compelling love story about Jo and Charlie, two ordinary, 21st-century sad sacks who meet at West's family tomb.

Jo (Susan O. Koozin), a wannabe actress who spends her dull days temping for a living, is quietly charmed by Charlie (Jeffrey Gimble), a film archivist at the local library. Both are embarrassed to be caught at the grave site of their idol, but eventually they reveal what they call their "obsession." They can quote West by heart: "A tough girl walks with her whole body. She talks tough. She makes things stand that never had feet." It is the toughness of West that attracts these two schlemiels, who spend their days hidden from the limelight, working up the courage to face the world. Of course, their first brave act is admitting their undying adoration of West to each other.

Over time, the strange friendship stumbles awkwardly toward a sweet intimacy. Charlie invites Jo to his office in the library to show her films; Jo tells Charlie about her humiliating and ridiculous auditions for "feminine products" commercials. But the relationship remains platonic. Jo assumes Charlie is gay, but there's a much deeper and more mysterious explanation for his unwillingness to get too close. Part of the power of this production is uncovering this secret.

Spliced into these scenes is the fascinating story of West's hardscrabble rise from small-time vaudeville singer to the top of the filmmaking aristocracy. At one point West was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood. Koozin, who is double cast as Jo and West, gives a wonderfully convincing rendition of the woman who reveled in breaking every rule and convention (it was West's films, full of suggestive sexual innuendo, that made the film industry start regulating content). Against set designer Kathy Arfken's blood-red velvet curtains draped across a glitzy proscenium arch, we get to watch Mae West sing and prance about, fighting theater owners and hecklers every step of the way. It wasn't until West started writing her own plays, first for Broadway and then for Hollywood, that she found her true voice and made movie history. That West didn't become a star until she had arrived at the "un-old" age of 39 makes the struggling Jo admire her even more.

In the end, it is the relationship between the present-day story and West's history that creates the torque of this production. The two tales intersect, both literally and figuratively, in Act II, and that's when the real energy takes off. The most powerful scene is when both Jo and West are being made over behind a dressing screen. Jo is getting ready for a costume party and West is turning herself into the "dirty blonde" with the sequined dress and plumed hat we all know so well. Directed with muscular grace by Laura Josepher, Koozin handles the extraordinary scene with tremendous aplomb. One minute she is Jo worrying to Charlie about her ability to pull off the look; the next she is West, goofing with her gay dresser Eddy (Philip Lehl) about her own sexy good looks. When Jo/West steps out from behind the screen, looking every bit the trash-talking dame who wrote a play called Sex long before Madonna was a twinkle in anybody's eye, the moment is stunning.

Each of the production's three actors is strong in multiple roles. As Charlie, Gimble is the quintessential nerd, but he also makes a terrific burlesque drag queen and a convincing W.C. Fields. Lehl is especially strong in his turn as Eddy, the extravagant drag queen who invented West's frothy platinum-blond look. But the real star here is Koozin, who works slowly up to the spicy, hip-swinging strut and throaty voice that became West's signature. Koozin does equally well with the simple Jo, dealing with the more ordinary loneliness and sorrows of the real world.

Andrew Cloud's costumes are also noteworthy. As representatives of the contemporary world, only Charlie and Jo wear color. Everyone from West's era is dressed in black and white. And West's costumes are simply dazzling.

But you don't have to be a West fan to find something charming in this tale of struggle and kindness. Shear does a wonderful job at establishing the soft heart at the center of West's hard fight for fame .

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Lee Williams