ABET opened its first play of 2014 with the Claudia Shear/James Lapine musical “DIRTY BLONDE,” which will be on stage at 716 Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach, Florida until February 15. Call (904) 249-7177 or go to abettheatre.com for reservations.
This is a unique story about the life of entertainer Mae West. Since she died before almost everyone involved with this production was born, as well as many of those in the audience, why should this play be of interest to today’s theatergoers?
As the play unfolds and reveals the facts about her multifaceted life, we come to understand why she has been referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and remains one of the most fascinating show business performers in American history. The American Film Institute lists her as the 15th greatest female star of all time. West championed civil rights for all, regardless of race, creed, or sexual preference, long before the government ever took steps to do so. She was famous for her mischievous humor, using tart, comic, and titillating language. She started in show business as a young teenager, appearing professionally in vaudeville and on Broadway, and continued for over seven successful decades. She appeared in many stage and film productions, as well as in a popular Las Vegas nightclub act. Further, she wrote a number of scripts for the stage and film. She appeared in her last film in 1978, two years before her death. She was responsible for launching Cary Grant‘s movie career in 1933 with “I’m No Angel,” and, according to some film historians, her language in that film resulted in the Motion Picture Production Code, which censored what could be said and shown on screen until the late 1960s.
Well, enough said, there is much more you will learn about her when you go to the show at ABET. The program includes a terrific four-page timeline of her life that is captivating reading.
The play’s story goes back and forth from the story of Charlie (Craig Wickless) and Jo (Katie Swider), two modern-day fans obsessed with Mae West, who meet while visiting her gravesite in Los Angeles. The scenes featuring West (Ms. Swider again) show her at progressive stages of her career with various agents, lovers, and collaborators. The latter are played by Mr. Wickless and Gary Baker and include nine different characters for Mr. Wickless and seven for Mr. Baker. The guys are at their very best and funniest as two flamboyant over-the-top drag queens, who actually had a big influence on West’s life as they taught her many mannerisms and gestures which she incorporated into her repertory.
And there is so much more, like the six songs belted out mainly by Swider, although Baker and Wickless contribute their share. All the songs have West’s brand, with titles like “A Guy Who Takes His Time,” “Cuddle Up and Cling to Me,” and “I’m No Angel.” Ms. Swider’s wonderful voice has brightened the stages of musicals all over Jacksonville. She is extraordinary as West, and has a much better voice; for a sample of the real West’s singing, check out YouTube before you see the show.
The multi-talented Musical Director Zeek Smith is also the only musician for this production. You will see him sitting at the vintage upright piano, playing almost constantly between the songs and the accompanying underscoring that added so much to the show.Lee Hamby, the Director, wears many hats; he also designed the set and the costumes. He created some minimalist magic in set design, with a very large center state headshot photo of West as a backdrop, and two bentwood chairs, a bench and a small table as the only furniture. Hamby also choreographed the show, and has the actors moving or standing for most of the scenes. Bryan Frank, Lighting Designer, and his crew Gordon Frank and Katie Berry, presented designs that were evocative and kept things interesting to go along with the many and varied costumes by Hamby. We especially liked the attire of the drag queens, and, of course, West’s magnificent hats and gowns.
As a side note, Katie Swider, who is absolutely perfect in this role, is a Florida State Theatre graduate and wrote her senior thesis on, who else, Mae West.
As for Hamby’s staging, it abounds with frank naughtiness, smart slapstick and rip-roaring relish. The superbly talented and delightful cast keeps the dialogue saucy and the comedy swift. This show is not appropriate for children; Ms. West had a voracious appreciation of sexuality, and always spoke with an aw-shucks straight forwardness, and you will hear many of her famous one-liners. In fact, we have a message that she asked us to pass on. Why don’t you come over and see her sometime before February 15th? When she is good, she is very good. But when she is bad she is even better, as you will discover.