Scripter Claudia Shear is not only re-creating her title role from the Tony-nominated 2000 Broadway preem of “Dirty Blonde”; she has brought the whole Gotham production with her to the Pasadena Playhouse, including co-creator/helmer James Lapine, cast members Tom Riis Farrell and Bob Stillman, and the original design team of Douglas Stein (sets), David Lander (lights), Susan Hilferty (costumes) and Dan Moses Schreier (sound). Shear and company have lost none of the quirky pizzazz that made this loving ode to showbiz icon Mae West a sleeper hit on the Great White Way. Shear’s script is a marvel and the performances are even better.
The tone of the production is established immediately as Shear and Farrell (serving as narrators) offer a glimpse into the bawdy, outspoken persona of their larger-than-life heroine. Trading banter, they establish that West is “not a girl you’d bring home to mother. She doesn’t like your mother. Fuck your mother.”
Lapine’s staging is unhurried, but the pace never lags as the thematic throughline moves effortlessly between the dual storylines.
Played out on Stein’s wonderfully malleable pink pillbox of a set, “Dirty Blonde” is a love story set against the backdrop of West’s outrageous career. The main action follows the evolution of the tentative romance between two of life’s losers, New York office temp/actress wannabe Jo (Shear) and library film archivist Charlie (Farrell). The glue that binds them is their shared infatuation with the life and career of West.
There’s a poignant rapport between Shear’s Jo and Farrell’s Charlie. Farrell is achingly endearing as the painfully shy nebbish who tries to follow a little too closely in West’s footsteps. As the object of his affection, Jo is similarly shy and distrusting, but exudes a bit more chutzpah than her would-be paramour. Though they are immediately drawn to each other, neither has the emotional stability, let alone the social skills, to take the final step into the other’s life.
Counterbalancing the Jo/Charlie romance is the stranger-than-fiction career of Mae West, also played by Shear. Show traces her rise from less-than-scintillating opening act on various vaudeville tickets, to a mainstream song-and-dance star, and finally to the writer and producer of her own plays and movies.
Shear offers a sumptuous portrayal of West at all aspects of her life, from her hip-thrusting early career to the not-too-steady aged recluse, living out her life at Hollywood’s Ravenswood Apartments in resolute denial that she is anything less than a transcendent star.
As the focus switches back and forth, Farrell displays great facility in a number of personas, including a hilarious turn as W.C. Fields, waging a battle of quips with West on the set of ’40s film classic “My Little Chickadee.” He’s also plausible as a series of prizefighting pugs whom West was famous for inviting to “come up and see me sometime.”
But special kudos go to Stillman, who offers an awe-inspiring array of personalities that flow in and out of almost every scene. He is memorable as West’s loser of a husband and as the imperious but observant helmer of West’s legit hit “Diamond Lil,” who instructs the overacting actress to just be her own unique self on stage. But it’s Stillman’s portrayal of aging vaudeville comic Joe Frisco, serving as crusty but loving caretaker for octogenarian West, that nearly steals the show.
Stillman also impresses with his occasional turns as onstage pianist. When Stillman isn’t at the piano, the computerized upright plays itself, providing a perfect atmosphere for this worthy glimpse into the life of one of the 20th century’s most original personalities.