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It's so nice (and rare) to be able to say this about any play, particularly a touring edition of a Broadway production: I enjoyed Dirty Blonde from start to finish without reservation. It's a smart, funny, sweet, and offbeat love story as well as an illuminating reflection on one of pop culture's most influential icons. The story is simple: Jo, an aspiring actress, and Charlie, a shy film archivist, meet at the grave of their idol Mae West--camp queen, protofeminist, bawdy sexual satirist, and unabashed eccentric. These unglamorous middle-aged loners start a friendship that builds clumsily but inevitably to romance, overcoming the usual bumps in the road plus one or two unusual ones. Counterpointing the couple's evolving relationship are vignettes depicting West's career--recounted by Charlie, who knew the star in her declining years. These flashbacks chart a shaky start in vaudeville, scandalous stage and screen successes, grotesque comeback attempts, and twilight years spent posing for tour groups outside her Hollywood home; at the same time they illuminate how West created her unique persona by filtering elements of gay, black, and hooker subcultures through her extravagant ambition and chutzpah. Playwright Claudia Shear cleverly contrives to have the same actress portray Jo and Mae; the guy playing Charlie also doubles as other men in West's life, including W.C. Fields. The touring cast--Sally Mayes as Jo, Tom Riis Farrell as Charlie, and Bob Stillman in various roles, including West's hoofer husband and her gay aide de camp--is superb, negotiating the parallel narratives and multiple characters with absolute credibility and clarity, helped by Susan Hilferty's impeccable costumes. James Lapine's shrewdly elaborate staging enhances rather than overwhelms the intimate story; Douglas Stein's abstract set, David Lander's lighting, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design ingeniously carry the action from vaudeville stage to West's dimly lit apartment to an echoing mausoleum. Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe, 312-902-1400. Through March 3: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 PM. Then March 5-10: Tuesday, 7:30 PM; Wednesday, 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 PM. $22-$65. Note: the show on Sunday, March 10, will be sign interpreted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carol Pratt.

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