Eva Knott 10:44 a.m., May 18
Mae West became such a fixture in pop culture the military named the first vest-sized life preserver after her. The yellow B-3, used throughout World War II, got its name because when someone inflated it, they grew as endowed as the platinum star of stage and screen.
West danced to a different drummer all her life with all her heart. After the First World War, when thin became in, flappers called for straight lines as skinny as the cigarettes women now smoked in public. West, who bucked tradition and trends (and who claimed to have been Catherine the Great in a previous life), did a 180. She bulked up and put her unrepressed sexuality centerstage, decked in diamonds and laced with one-liners that, like Oscar Wilde's, summed up an entire way of life.
"It's good girls who keep diaries," she said. "Bad girls never have the time."
Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde, currently at Cygnet, only dabbles with West's psyche — and her near-metaphysical certitude of being on the right track. The intermissionless piece is content do define her persona, from afar, and how it came into being.
She changes her voice, slows it down and slows her moves so much that everyone else seems frantic; she dyes her hair and dons outsized outfits (my dear friend, the late costume designer Lewis Brown, said the real Mae West was actually "petite." He'd seen her measurements at Western Costume and was astonished at how much she padded herself).
Dirty Blonde tells two stories. The rise of West and the unlikely courtship of Jo and Charlie. Thanks to the barrier-breaking influence of their icon, they learn to accept differences.
If you ran the two stories separately, neither would make for much theater. Both lack dimension and, until the end, much drama. What ignite Cygnet's trim production, framed in bright red, are the performances, the theatricality, and the demands overcome.
Director Sean Murray has cast an all-star team of three: Melinda Gilb (Mae and Jo), Steve Gunderson (Charlie and others), and musical director David McBean (a potpourri of precise eccentrics). Each excels, though on opening night the musical numbers were surprisingly muted: under-miked and un-show-bizzy.
Were the performances of lesser quality, this would be the JBG Show. Jennifer Brawn Gittings' costumes — from Jo- and Charlie-defining drab, to West's gonzo glitz — are outstanding. At one point, Gilb goes behind a screen and transforms herself into a gawdy red extravagance with more sparkles than a smog-free night in San Diego.
As Gilb adds enough padding for a football player (including Peter Herman's curlicued wig), it's easy to forget that almost every other costume change happens in the blink of an eye.