In Dirty Blonde, her uproarious offbeat romantic comedy and clever homage to husky-voiced, tough-talking 1930s sex goddess Mae West (1890-1982), actress/playwright Claudia Shear pairs a couple of lonely New Yorkers, a mousy film archivist named Charlie and a brassy office temp/aspiring actress named Jo. They have little in common, except for their obsession with West, a larger-than-life star of vaudeville, the legitimate stage, and the silver screen.
Short and a little overweight by today's anorexic standards, but a platinum-blonde bombshell by the standards of the 1930s and 1940s, Mae West shamelessly smirked, strutted, and shimmied her way through a succession of highly successful Broadway plays and Hollywood films saturated in sex and loaded with double entendres. She served as a kind of visual Viagra for a couple of generations of schoolboys.
Alison Lawrence, who co-stars with David Ring and Michael Brocki in the current Theatre in the Park presentation of Dirty Blonde, has Mae West's trademark cat-who-just-swallowed-the-canary smile, salty talk, and knowing winks and other come-hither mannerisms down pat. When dressed in Mae's tight satin gowns or snug sequined dresses, big dramatic hats bedecked with feathers, and high heels, Lawrence is the very image of the sultry, swivel-hipped icon of yesteryear. She is equally excellent in evoking the frustrations and disappointments of the modern-day Jo, the plus-size would-be actress forced to take a succession of temporary office jobs to pay her rent while she loses plum parts to slimmer competitors who better conform to the present-day standards for the American beauty.
During a birthday pilgrimage to Mae West's mausoleum in Queens, Jo meets Charlie (Ring). They become friends while pursuing their common interest in the life and films of Mae West. Trouble comes when Charlie wants to become more than friends with Jo. Charlie has a big secret, and it threatens to nip Jo and Charlie's romance in the bud.
David Ring is terrific as Charlie, a sad sack if ever there was one. Ring also doubles delightfully as wise-cracking but hard-drinking comedian W.C. Fields and various beefy boxers, policemen, judges, and show-business acquaintances who peopled the milestones in Mae West's life and career that Dirty Blonde recreates to parallel Charlie's persistent attempts to become Jo's boyfriend.
But Michael Brocki steals the show with his flamboyant and utterly hilarious impersonation of Eddie, the gay hairdresser — and shameless drama queen — who becomes one of Mae West's best friends and confidants. Like Ring, Brocki sparkles in each of his multiple roles, giving each unforgettable character a distinct personality and a liveliness that helped Dirty Blonde earn a lengthy standing ovation opening night (Feb. 7th).
Actress/director Lynda Clark guest-directs Dirty Blonde with considerable style and wit, impressive imagination, and admirable grit. She superbly orchestrates the on-stage monkey business and song-and-dance segments, and she coaches a virtuoso performance from each cast member, making Dirty Blonde a must-see romantic comedy.
To accommodate the show's lightning-quick scene changes, scenic designer Stephen J. Larson builds a superlative set around Heather DiFilippo's striking floor mural of a typically tarted-up Mae West, lighting designer Thomas Mauney skillfully illuminates the action, and musical director/pianist Glenn Mehrbach provides sprightly accompaniment for the show's musical interludes. But it is costume designer Amanda McElray and wig designer John C. McIlwee who steal the show, with their drab everyday wardrobe for misfits Charlie and Jo and their flamboyant to-die-for fashions for the irrepressible Mae West and her impersonators of both sexes.
Theatre in the Park presents Dirty Blonde Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 13-15 and 20-22, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 16 and 23, at 3 p.m. at Theatre in the Park, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students, seniors, and military personnel). 919/831-6058. http://theatreinthepark.com/frames/dirty_blonde_frame.html.