Like a Million Buxom: Emily Skinner fills out the role of West nicely.
Like a Million Buxom: Emily Skinner fills out the role of West nicely.

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The moment people tend to talk about, when they talk about Claudia Shear’s hit Mae West homage Dirty Blonde, is the one where Mae West finally becomes capital-Mae capital-West—the icon, not the woman, with those curves corseted so temptingly, with the platinum ’do, the 8-foot boa, the hat big enough for all three Musketeers, and the sparkly hip-hugging sheath all designed to say, with Mae, “It’s better to get looked over than overlooked.”

And it’s a key moment, no argument, not least because as she transforms Mae West the mildly notorious vaudevillian into Mae West the breakthrough star of Broadway’s Diamond Lil, the actress at the center of Dirty Blonde must also turn Jo—the present-day Mae West fanatic whose unlikely relationship with an equally obsessed film librarian gives the play its substantial heart—into the pop-culture goddess whose worship leads both misfit acolytes toward an unexpected chance at happiness. The scene makes for a distinctly theatrical bit of business, not to mention an intriguingly layered comment on how the famous and the ordinary alike create the personalities they present to the world.

So maybe it’s revealing that in Jeremy Skidmore’s compact, handsome staging for the Signature Theatre, the moment that seems most striking isn’t that big transformation but a smaller, earlier act of appropriation. It comes as Emily Skinner’s Mae goes through the paces of a low-key soft-shoe routine that’s been a solo mainstay for a vaudeville hoofer (J. Fred Shiffman) whose act she horns in on through sheer force of will: For a minute, Mae matches her new partner move for move, and then that voluptuous figure shifts into overdrive and the body-English overtakes the dance, turning it into something rather raunchier—and altogether more entertaining. It’s “colored dancing,” as her scandalized collaborator puts it, and Dirty Blonde makes the case, here and elsewhere, that it was by just such a process of cultural cherry-picking—deft and shameless borrowings from Chicago clubs and Village queens, from blues songs and drag shows and blackface comics and the shapely dames of her mother’s day—that Mae West created the composite figure that captured the public imagination.

It’s the strength of that figure, and its lingering grip on Jo and Charlie, those two contemporary admirers—they meet on Mae’s birthday, leaving mementos at her tomb—that Dirty Blonde is concerned with. That, and a question or two about what it costs to construct such a formidable thing: When a 17-year-old Charlie (Hugh Nees) meets his idol during one of the flashbacks that give the show its appetizing texture, it’s toward the end of her life, but Mae’s investment in her predator-bombshell persona is so complete that she’s still performing it, the hair and the vamping and the slow, drowsy come-ons as ghastly on an octogenarian as they were alluring in her salad days. The moment’s presumably invented, though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it’s not far off the mark: Later scenes make reference to Mae’s ’50s-vintage Vegas act (she was in her 60s) and to Sextette, a legendarily bad 1978 sex comedy with the 84-year-old West pursuing a thirtysomething Timothy Dalton (creakily, to be sure, but still pursuing.)

Shear’s story, though, is no cautionary price-of-fame tale that invites the audience to pity a star who’s traded self for stardom. In fact it’s the opposite: Dirty Blonde celebrates both Mae’s sacrifices and what was purchased with them—specifically, a persona that Jo and Charlie both find inspiration in. Mae the person may remain something of a mystery to them, but Mae the rule-breaking construct gives them permission to be their own individual kinds of strange—and permission, as the show moves into its (admittedly overpadded) homestretch, to identify a brand of unconventionality that might accommodate them both.

Skidmore and his cast and crew do nicely by the play, last seen hereabouts when Shear herself toured it to the Kennedy Center back in 2001. Signature’s production is a lot smaller, of course—it’s playing in the 110-seat Ark theater—but it’s a cozy sort of small, which lets Skinner do attractively subtle things with the distinctions between brassy young Mae and her ossified older self. It lets the audience get a good close look, too, at just what a savvy scene-thief Shiffman is; there’s less art in some entire Broadway musicals than there is in the way this guy executes a well-timed twitch of a shoulder. (No, seriously, go see the show, and you’ll know exactly the moment I mean.) He’s a chameleon, too, putting on accents and attitudes as he plays a string of the men who made Mae—and who helped make her what she was.

Nees, with his knack for the hangdog and his instinct for the offbeat, should be a natural as Charlie, and for the most part he’s good fun. The character’s essential vulnerability isn’t registering, though, and without it some of the chemistry between Charlie and Jo goes missing as well.

He’s in his element, though, as one of Mae’s pugilist buddies during her Hollywood heyday, and with his bulldog frame he’s a riot as an awkward sissy trying madly to upstage a more accomplished swish (Shiffman again, of course) in the song-and-dance number—one of just a handful in this “play with music”—that shows Mae learning from a couple of drag queens how best to be a dame. (Matthew Gardiner’s musical staging is deft, funny, and gratifyingly communicative.)

The production design (Dan Covey on lights, Daniel Conway on sets, Helen Huang on costumes) creates a warm frame for the proceedings—two of them, in fact, and both gilded, which makes for a nice comment on a life lived as a sort of performance portrait and a reasonably convincing suggestion of a vaudeville proscenium house (in what is, let’s remember, a black-box room). It must be said that, at Sunday’s press opening at least, the unamplified performers seemed to be still feeling out the size of that room—some lines went half-heard behind the occasional snatch of ragtime piano, and some of Skinner’s songs seemed pitched to an even smaller house. But as Mae is supposed to have said, “Personality is the most important thing to an actress’ success”—and a decade after it first tilted its head back and pouted at off-Broadway audiences, Dirty Blonde is proving again that it’s got personality in spades.