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A CurtainUp Review
Dirty Blonde

New York Theatre Workshop Review
Original Cast Broadway Review
Kathy Najimy as the Dirty Blonde

New York Theatre Workshop Review
I made myself platinum but I was born a dirty blonde— Mae West
Mae West
Mae West
As you enter the New York Theatre Workshop, you're caught in the come-hither eyes projected onto a scrim at the rear of the stage. Those eyes and just a glimpse of platinum curls are all that's needed to recognize the twentieth century's most infamously famous movie star and sex symbol, Mae West. You can almost hear her languid voice inviting you to come in and enjoy yourself. And so you will as Claudia Shear, Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman does equally amazing quick changes that include a bent-over old Mae West pal as well as the elegant director who taught her not to act. Claudia Shear plays just Mae West's life story and a most unlikely New York singles relationship into an imaginatively staged, funny and heart-warming tapestry.

Claudia Shear
Claudia Shear as Mae West
(Photo: Joan Marcus)&
Ms. Shear is this double -tiered comedy's author and also plays its two key characters -- the extraordinary Brooklyn born Mae and Jo the unextraordinary fan who still lives in Brooklyn, and is, like Mae (and the playwright), a natural dirty blonde and svelte. Anyone familiar with Mae West's and Claudia Shear's careers will recognize a spiritual sisterhood at work.

West rose from the ranks of vaudeville by writing plays for herself. She was forty by the time she became a star in Hollywood where she continued to write her own lines. Shear was thirty, plus quite a few years, by the time she'd lost sixty-four jobs and followed in Mae's footsteps by transforming her experiences into Blown Sideways Through Life. When a fortune teller in I'm No Angel told West "I see a man in your future" she quipped "what, only one?" She'd give Claudia Shear a big hand for the way she adapted this bit of wisdom by casting herself as both star and star gazer.

But enough comparisons. The important news about Dirty Blonde is that it delivers on the promise shown in Blown Sideways Through Life (also at New York Theatre Workshop). That one-hour monlogue, in spite of its success, was not quite a full-fledged play, nor was Shear a seasoned enough actor to handle all the detours into playing characters other than herself. Dirty Blonde, however, is very much a play; in fact, it has enough music, including Bob Stillman's eponymous original song, to be classified as a play with music The monologist has become a mature playwright. The stand-up comic has developed enough depth to render two engaging character portraits. Her Mae may not be true blue West but she's caught the essence of ""the movie equivalent of Venice."

The play's structure cross-cuts between Mae West's story and the pleasures and tribulations in the developing friendship between two of her most ardent fans. Being themselves outcasts from the world of the beautiful and sexually fulfilled, Mae West's spunky, daring glamour represents everything Charlie and Jo are not. What more apt way for these two to meet than at West's last resting place, a Queens mausoleum. What better way to insure that their chance meeting won't be their last than to have Charlie work in a film archive -- an irresistible "hotbed of obsession" stocked with West memorabilia. It is this obsession of fans of the famous that adds yet another layer to the dual story line.

While it takes more than half a dozen male characters to spin out Mae's life story and deal with the lumps and bumps in Charlie and Jo's relationship, the cast is small. Still, three actors are better than one. Stillman and Chamberlin as all the men are so good and versatile that they're more enjoyable to watch than a half a dozen performers.

Kevin Chamberlin is utterly winning in his main role as the midwestern born Charlie who is an even more intense Mae West admirer, having actually gone to California when she was still alive and met her (to his seventeen-year-old eyes she was neither young or old, just "unold"). In the end he has us rooting for a happy resolution to his very special "Mae West" problem. Bob Stillman not only contributes his musical skills (musical director, arranger, composer, occasional piano player) but proves himself to be a fine character actor, most notably as Mae's first husband and Joe Frisco an old-time vaudevillian and hanger-on who "used to play the Palace and now only plays the horses."

Whatever James Lapine's credit as co-conceiver as well as director means, the concept is splendidly executed -- from the casual opening with Bob Stillman sitting down at the upright piano at the side of the stage, to warm things up with "Frankie and Johnny" to Jo in platinum wig, a sparkly Schiaparelli gown and a pair of West's skyscraper high heeled slippers. There are too many terrific scenes in between to mention more than a few: a snappy Shear-Chamberlin "A Tough Girl" duet . . . Mae's confrontation with the judge (Chamberlin) who had her arrested after the opening of her raunchy first play, Sex (to his "be careful or I'll charge you with contempt" she quips "I'm trying hard not to show it!") . . . a standout Chamberlin and Stillman excerpt from Sextette, the movie she made at eighty-five . . . and a bangup finale that I'm not spoiler enough to reveal. Throughout the shift from Jo and Charlie's story to Mae West's is so smoothly directed that it all seems of a piece.

Like several recently reviewed new plays -- all with small casts and Off-Broadway, and all a triumph for the supposedly non-existent American playwright -- Dirty Blonde, has been given the big show treatment it deserves. Douglas Stein's sleek box-like stage on top of the permanent stage elegantly accommodates numerous locales and is expertly lit by David Lander. Susan Hilferty's costumes are just what the hard working trio needs to fit their diverse personas -- a silver "Diamond Lil" outfit is a marvel of glitter and glitz.

For those of you whose curiosity about the woman Dick Cavette called "the eighth wonder of the world" is whetted by Dirty Blonde, here are some additional sources of information:

Written by Claudia Shear
Directed by James Lapine
Musical staging by John Carrafa
Musical direction by Bob Stillman

With Kevin Chamberlin, Claudia Shear, Bob Stillman
Set Design: Douglas Stein
Lighting Design: David Lander
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Sound Design: Daniel Moses Schreier.
Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes without intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. (Bowery/ Second Av) 460-5475
12/12/99-2/03/200; opening 1/10/2000
Attention wallet watchers: NYTheatre Workshop has some great $aving deals.
Seniors can buy $45 tix for $28; student tix are $12; limited availability rush tickets are $10
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/08/2000 performance
Original Cast Broadway Review
Dirty Blonde at the Helen Hayes
A Downtown to Broadway Move That Works

As theatrical good luck would have it, Dirty Blonde did after all find a second home, the very venue mentioned above. Now that I've seen the show in it's new Broadway home, I'm pleased to report that this is a move that works very well. The interlinked story of the larger-than-life Mae West and the two lonely New Yorkers who meet when they make a birthday pilgrimage to her mauseleum in Queens is as entertaining and touching as it was in the East Village. Everything and everyone from the original production (see review below this box) is in place. Kevin Chamberlin inhabits, among others, the persona of Charlie the nerdy librarian, a wrestler and Mae West's nemesis, W. C. Fields. Bob Stillman matches his multiple personality switches, one minute West's stooped over old pal Joe Frisco and the next the elegant director who taught Mae how NOT to act. Claudia Shear does just Jo and Mae, but then she's also the author of the well-crafted script.

All are, if anything, even better and more endearing than before. Since the Helen Hayes stage is actually smaller than that of the New York Theatre Workshop, Douglas Stein's versatile box set fills out its new space with easy. This is definitely not a case of a not so funny thing happened on the way from downtown to uptown. None of the production's downtown intimacy has been lost. The only thing bigger is the seating capacity -- and the sound of the laughter and applause. -- Elyse Sommer, May 1, 2000

DIRTY BLONDE Presented in association with New York Theatre Workshop
Helen Hayes, 240 W. 44th St., (7th/8th Avs.), 239-6262
Performances from 4/14/2000; opening 5/01/2000

Seen and reported on by Elyse Sommer based on 5/28/2000 performance

Kathy Najimy as the Dirty Blonde
The come-hither look is a tad less come-hithery, the strut and shimmying not quite aggressive. On the other hand, Kathy Najimy brings terrific comic timing to her interpretation of Jo, the actress-temp and her idol, the legendary Mae West. While Najimy is a more actory Jo-Mae than her predecessor, Claudia Shear can go to London, where's she's scheduled to reprise the tough girl, with the assurance that Najimy will do honor to her play on Broadway.

I've now seen Dirty Blonde three times. While there's nothing like the thrill of discovery when you first come to a new play that delivers on all counts -- script, staging, originality -- there's also the satisfaction of being to witness its durability. When I saw Blonde the second time, I was delighted to be witness to how well it transferred to Broadway as well as the durability of its vulnerability and charm.

Having now seen it a third time with Kathy Najimy and Tom Riis Farrell in the role originated by Kevin Chamberlin, it's clear that Shear's play about the two lonely New Yorkers whose obsession for Mae West leads to a sweetly oddball romance can be interpreted by actors with somewhat different styles. What was hilarious and touching with Shear and Chamberlin playing Jo-Mae and Charlie and others, is still hilarious and touching. Najimy's more actory approach to the part works. Farrell also proves himself a worthy successor to Chamberlin, particularly so in the various roles that he plays in addition to Charlie.

One easily fixable quibble: Najimy is taller and probably slimmer than Shear while Farrel is shorter and trimmer. Yet the prop that is used in the scene during which Jo discovers Charlie's secret still seems sized to fit Chamberlin. For a minute or so this gives the impression that the actors substituting for a night instead of on stage for the long haul. This reservation aside, the dialogue still sizzle and the clever staging dazzles. As for Bob Stillman, the one original and fresh as the perennial daisy cast member, may he play Joe Frisco, Frank Wallace and Mae's other men forever.

Kathy Najimy
Written by Claudia Shear
Conceived by Claudia Shear and James Lapine
Starring: Cathy Najimy as Jo and Mae West
With , Tom Riis Farrell as Charlie and others
Bob Stillman as Joe Frisco and others
Design Credits: Same as original production
Helen Hayes, 240 W. 44th St., (7th/8th Avs.), 239-6262
Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes without intermission
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm, $65.
Seen and reported on by Elyse Sommer based on 1/22 performance

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