In the program notes for Dirty Blonde, Coyote StageWorks Founding Artistic Director Chuck Yates mentions he has wanted to present this play, which focuses on Mae West, since the theater’s inception 9 years ago. Since 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” he chose the perfect time to do so: Whether or not you’re a Mae West fan, it’s impossible to deny that she was an icon of womanhood, in her own way.
Written by and starring Claudia Shear, Dirty Blonderan Off-Broadway in 2000, and on Broadway in 2000 and 2001. (Interestingly, it’s one of just a few plays in Broadway history to have its entire cast nominated for Tony Awards.) The show explores the phenomenon of West through the eyes of two devoted fans—aspiring actress and office-temp Jo, and public-library film archivist Charlie. They meet while visiting West’s grave, and develop a warm friendship based on a mutual love of the bawdy sex symbol.
Both Charlie and Jo are lonely and seem to be missing something in their lives, so finding in each other a fellow Mae West groupie seems like coming home. Jo idolizes West as an example of female strength, confidence and sexual liberation; after all, West spoke her mind and didn’t care a whit what anyone else thought. Mild-mannered Charlie, who actually got to meet and spend some time with West in her later years, is simply in awe of the star, describing her as “blonde and tough and ready for sex.” He basks in her flirtatiousness, and some of her sexual confidence even seems to rub off on him: When in her presence, he becomes the man he’s always wanted to be.
The scenes between Charlie and Jo are interspersed with vignettes from West’s career, from her early days in Vaudeville to her decline into parody while she was in her 80s. The audience is reminded of what a trailblazer she really was. Her battles with censors were legendary; she defied orders to tone down her hip swiveling in dance numbers, and even spent 10 days in jail for public lewdness during the run of her self-penned play Sex on Broadway.
Director James Gruessing has assembled a stellar cast; each member plays multiple roles with great skill. As Mae West and Jo, Bets Malone is simply superb. She perfectly captures both the sweet insecurity of Jo and the bold outrageousness of West. Though prettier than West herself, Malone nails it when it comes to West’s toughness—including the “don’t mess with me, but jump into bed when I snap my fingers” message to men. Of course, she has some of the play’s best lines: “I’ve seen more men than you’ve had hot lunches.” When an assistant is dismissed by West’s suggestion that he run down to the corner, he challenges her by asking, “What’s down on the corner?” Her answer: “YOU!” A strong actress, Malone also exhibits great pipes during the musical numbers.
Also an outstanding actor, Steve Gunderson plays Charlie with subtlety and tenderness. His growing affection for Jo is touching and believable, as is his conflict over whether he’s simply attracted to Mae West … or does he actually harbor a desire to be her? The onstage chemistry between Gunderson and Malone—crucial to this play—is quite strong.
Rounding out the cast is the fabulous Larry Raben, who portrays multiple characters, including West’s little-known husband, Frank Wallace. An actor knows that jumping back and forth between characters (and costumes) throughout a production is not easy, but Raben handles it with ease. He has great comic timing (as does the entire cast), and owns the stage whenever he appears.
Josh Clabaugh’s lovely set and Moira Wilkie’s lighting design are spot on. Special mention must be made of Bonnie Nipar’s lush costumes: The bright colors, sequins, glitter and boas are perfect for West’s larger-than-life persona. The hair and makeup are quite well-done in this production as well.
The musical numbers (the original score is by Bob Stillman) are a delight, especially “Dirty Blonde” and “Oh My, How We Pose.”
Kudos once again to Yates for choosing to mount this production now. It is so relevant to the current national conversation (long overdue) about what kind of sexual banter is and is not appropriate, and the movement for women to finally have both equal power in the workplace and complete control over what happens to their bodies.
I have a feeling Mae West would have quite a bit to say on the matter. Thank you, Mae, for your courage, your bluntness and your refusal to be anything other than what you were. And thank you, Chuck Yates and Coyote StageWorks, for giving valley audiences such a compelling and enjoyable evening of theater.
Dirty Blonde, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 3; 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 4; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 7; 2 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 10; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs one hour and 40 minutes, with no Intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.