- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

Mae West, as an admirer in “Dirty Blonde” says, is “the movie star equivalent of Venice.” You can’t say a place is “a little like Venice” — there’s no other place like it. And there hasn’t been a sex symbol quite like Miss West — despite many imitators — in the 30 years since her death.

“Dirty Blonde,” the Tony-nominated musical that premiered on Broadway in 2000 and is being restaged at Signature, is a raucous celebration of the risque movie queen and vaudeville star. It’s so good at defining Miss West’s raw appeal that one wonders why we need those admirers to frame what’s a fascinating story on its own.

“Dirty Blonde” isn’t the only recent dramatic work with this problem. “Julie & Julia,” in cinemas now, explores the life of iconic chef Julia Child through the lens of a contemporary Manhattanite inspired by her — and the film tends to drag whenever Meryl Streep, who plays Miss Child, is off-screen.

Its misguided framing device notwithstanding, “Dirty Blonde” works — so beguiling is Emily Skinner as the sexy siren at its center.

Miss Skinner plays both Miss West and Jo, a modern-day fan. Visiting the actress’s remains in a Brooklyn mausoleum, Jo finds she’s not the only one to pay respects on Miss West’s birthday. She strikes up a friendship with Charlie (Hugh Nees), a film archivist who regales Jo with stories of Miss West’s later years, when he was lucky enough to befriend the star. Charlie is soon falling for Jo, who has something of the actress’s attitude — but Jo is reluctant to get involved with a guy who dresses up as his idol.

The play gets its title from Miss West’s quip, “I made myself platinum, but I was born a dirty blonde.” The script is filled with those double entendres that made her famous — and that she wrote herself. Miss West was more than just a pretty face and a sultry wiggle. She was a self-made woman who got herself a starring role on Broadway by writing, producing and directing her own play — the aptly-titled “Sex.”

“Dirty Blonde” opens Signature’s 20th anniversary season, and the company is riding high after just winning the Tony award for best regional theater. This play is in its smaller ARK space, and the scenic design by Daniel Conway isn’t too inspired, but big performances from its three stars make it a winning show. Mr. Nees and J. Fred Shiffman take on multiple roles — Miss West’s husband, lovers, co-stars, directors and hangers-on — with great gusto, transforming themselves each time.

Miss Skinner effects the real transformation, though. She doesn’t look much like Miss West — especially not Miss West’s slimmer early years — but she convinces us, not just with Helen Huang’s sparkling costumes, but by perfecting that distinctive voice, just as Miss Streep did with Miss Child.

“Tough and blonde and ready for sex,” is how Charlie describes Miss West. The icon was more than that, of course — as “Dirty Blonde” entertainingly reminds us, she was good, bad and better.

★★★

WHAT: “Dirty Blonde” by Claudia Shear

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 4.

TICKETS: $47 to $71

PHONE: 703/573-7328

WEB SITE: signature-theatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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