‘The Dirty Blonde’ at the Little Theatre offers a stunning look at Mae West

‘The Dirty Blonde’ at the Little Theatre offers a stunning look at Mae West

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Matt Liptak)

It took more than fluff and fizz to create an icon like Mae West. An iconoclast in the art of sex appeal — even the term was taboo when she started performing on the vaudeville circuit in 1911 — West was the naughtiest of naughty girls, a role she cherished and perfected throughout her lengthy career.

In writer Claudia Shear’s Tony-nominated story “Dirty Blonde,” now in production at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, an impressionable young fan Charlie (Daniel J. Calderon) becomes deeply affected by his meetings with the seductive actress. She teases and woos him and they develop an ongoing, though unconsummated, affinity for each other. As an adult, he meets and is attracted to Jo (Alexandra Guyker), another adoring Mae West fan, but his obsession with the movie star impedes his ability to have more than a superficial relationship.

Janette Moman plays the voluptuous siren, breathing new life into the legend that drove Hollywood’s glamour machine for decades. Moman’s voice and movements mimic the star’s singular appeal. And her ability to portray her vulnerability as well as her sexuality contributes to a convincing performance.

Two consummate actors, Chris Gillespie and Daniel Doeuk, play all the other men that weave in and out of Mae’s life: her husband Frank Wallace, co-stars, assorted agents, beaus, dance partners and a judge and court clerk. Set primarily in New York and Los Angeles from 1911 to 1984, the show features seven of West’s greatest musical numbers, including “I’m No Angel,” “Oh My, How We Pose,” “A Guy What Takes His Time” from “She Done Him Wrong,” and “Dirty Blonde” from her Vegas act in the late 1950s.

West broke every convention of the day with her racy behavior and scandalous stunts, and the show is as informative of her past as it is entertaining, often weaving her famous quotes into the dialogue. “Are you shakin’ my hand or takin’ my pulse,” she asks a potential backer. Later, we learn she borrowed femininity advice from her fellow performers, a close-knit group of drag queens, and appropriated the “Shimmy She Wobble” from black acts of the day.

Mae’s story runs alongside the tale of Charlie and Jo, their tender friendship and mutual admiration of Mae, and his inability to free himself of his fixation with Mae long enough to let real love into his life. “She never really let herself learn to love anyone but herself,” Charlie admits to Jo.

Calderon captures Charlie’s transformation from awkward youth into adulthood, and Guyker proves to be the perfectly cast matchup. Complex emotional themes weave in and out of the jokes and the cast rises to the challenge.

The crew is worthy of commendations in addition to the actors on stage. Costumes by Beverley Benda, wardrobe by Jean Coyle, and fabulous hair and wigs by Rebecca Harris all capture the decades of glamorous gowns, platinum blonde bouffant hairstyles, and mountains of feathered accessories. David Dender on piano and David Burrelli on bass bring the story and songs to life.