HOUSTON VOICE www.houston voice.com
APRIL 4, 2003 19
Cast, costuming are just two
of the highlights of this play focusing
on the irrepressible Mae West
'Blonde' is a delight
I THINK CONTEXT IS VERY IMPORTANT,
so as I sat down to write about Stages' new
production, "Dirty Blonde," I was listening to
Three Doors Down's song, "Loser," and had
just finished reading Judith Thurman's article in the current New Yorker about artist
Vanessa Beecroft's bulimia exhibition, "The
Wolf at the Door." How those influences play
into this review, I'm not exactly sure, except
that a famously sexy female performer, Mae
West, and a couple of her obsessed fans are
the illuminating context for "Dirty Blonde."
Stages Repertory Theatre has mounted
yet another must-see play for Houstonians.
Claudia Shear, whom you might know as the
screenwriter for several well-received films
like "Living Out Loud" and "It Could Happen
to You," received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for Best Play for this superb work
about Mae West's life and career, told by way
of two lonely, admiring fans. Laura Josepher,
back in Houston for her third Stages' production, directed this two-hour time capsule, noting that her research revealed West to be one
of the best and earliest feminist icons for her
use and command of sexuality
In fact, "Sex" was the name of West's first
play one that was shut down by authorities
soon after opening and landed the budding
actress/songstress/comedienne/writer in the
slammer for a few days (she got no answer
upon asking the judge how she could spend her
nights). Scathing repartee with innuendo was
and is the trademark of West, and no "dame"
since could possibly match her mentally (Sarah
Bernhardt, though, comes to mind).
Undaunted and even encouraged by the
"Sex" brou-ha-ha, West created "Diamond Lil"
a huge Broadway hit that established her image
as a sex symbol in the American public's mind.
From that stage success came the film, "She
Done Him Wrong," starring the then-unknown
Cary Grant, a film credited for rescuing the
near bankrupt Paramount Studios. West
worked in radio and television for many years
before writing her autobiography "Goodness
Had Nothing To Do With It" finally settling in a
Hollywood apartment for her retirement
It is in that very same apartment that
many of the finest moments of "Diriy Blonde"
are enacted. That setting, her family mausoleum in Brooklyn's Cypress Hill Cemetery,
and a number of vaudeville stages account for
most of the locations of this play that alternates between the present and the past of a
great career Actress Susan Oltmanns-Koozin
captures that Mae West in the past and embodies Jo, the infatuated fan, in the present. Her
voice intonations, body movements, and interactions with a variety of male characters had
to transcend decades of time, and she met the
demands incredibly Many moments during
her performance had me literally in the room
with the real Mae West, and it was only
applause that brought me out of the reverie.
Susan Ottmanns-Koozin stars as Mae West in
Stages Repertory Theatre's must-see 'Dirty Blonde.'
Accompanying Oltmanns-Koozin in this
stage creation of an American icon are the
immensely versatile Jeffrey Gimble and
Philip Lehl, both of whom play at least a
half dozen assorted men in West's life and
career. Most intriguing, though, is Gimble's
portrayal of Charlie, a young film archivist
who is solidly obsessed with this sex goddess, to the point of visiting her grave every
year and secretly wearing one of her gowns.
Gimble's range with this character along
with the others is wonderful to witness. Lehl
plays everything from a grandfatherly Joe Frisco
to the very witty drag queen Eddie Hearn.
Every new character—and there are several —
seem to be an entirely different person.
Outside of a well-written play, strong direction and wonderful enactment are the elements
of stage and costume design. It is amazing how
Stages' creative staff can fabricate moments of
time and many different places so economically and make the suspension of belief so easy
Costume Designer Andrew Cloud is responsible for a great deal of that magic, having
begun costume research back in November
and creating 27 renderings that Costume Shop
Manager Brooks Ashley and staff brought to
material life. West was and is noted for her
larger-than-life persona, and as Josepher states,
there is litfle chance of overdressing her.
If for nothing else, the enjoyment of the
costuming would be reason enough to see
"Dirty Blonde." That costuming coupled
with a gilded vaudeville stage arch, an
upright piano for the songs and thickly cushioned furniture round out a stage design
wonderfully convincing and enjoyable.
By all means, go see "Dirty Blonde." For
as Mae West so naughtily expressed: "Too
much of a good thing is wonderful."
£} MORE INFO
Through April 13
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays • 3 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $32-342 • Stages Repertory Theatre
3201 Allen Parkway at Waugh Drive
713-527-0123 • www.stagestheatre.com
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