'Dirty Blonde' tantalizes audiences with musical tribute

Erin Marquis

Issue date: 7/17/07 Section: Features
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Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre hosts Broadway hit, "Dirty?Blonde," giving audiences a glimpse at the life of America's first sex symbol.

"Come up and see me sometime."

"Dirty Blonde," a play about Hollywood's first sex symbol, Mae West, is the don't-miss theatrical hit of the summer.

"Obsession grants the patience to fine tune the detail," claims Jo, one of the main characters from the play "Dirty Blonde," which opened this Friday at Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre. America's original sex symbol owns the stage once again in this off-broadway hit that is sure to entertain audience of all ages.

In this charming and intimate theater, the award winning tale of fame and idol worship bursts to life as the actors of the Performance Network Theatre present the story of Mae West and various people who were touched by her presence and her films. The curtain rises and the audience meets Jo, who is visiting West's grave on the actress's birthday, an activity that has become a tradition over the years. While there, she meets Charlie, a quiet man whose obsession with Mae West has also drove him to her grave to pay homage to a woman known as a star and a friend. Their unique relationship plays out with West's life as the background.

Part musical, part biography and part comedy, "Dirty Blonde" takes us from West's beginnings on Vaudeville to her rise during the golden age of Hollywood. We see her arrested for indecency for her plays about prostitutes and cross-dressers which were banned from Broadway. She was constantly censored, even as she made a sensation in Hollywood. And finally, we see her old and frail, unwilling to fade gently from memory playing a 26-year-old at 85 in her final movie "Sextette."

The play jumps time, destination and characters quickly, but the actors keep up. Carla Milarch, who plays both Mae West and Jo, sometimes simultaneously and always flawlessly, plays one of the most impressive roles in this production. She endures multiple costume changes while speaking lines as both Mae and Jo, as well as singing, dancing and performing partially nude. Her fluidity and grace in both roles is outstanding and not to be missed.

The cast is extremely inventive, using and reusing actors for multiple personality changes in the middle of an act coupled with completely different costume changes, voice changes and walks. The entire cast seems schizophrenic in the most wonderful way and makes it look easy. Phil Powers, the actor who not only plays the leading man's role of Charlie with such sympathetic flair, also plays seven other roles. Ranging from a crooning cross-dresser to the famous actor, drunken W.C. Fields. The entire show is a tour de force of comedy, song and dance that is a rare treat in straight theater and is reminiscent of vaudeville.

"Dirty Blonde" binds the lives of actresses and devotees. Both Jo and Charlie look to Mae as someone much braver and tougher than themselves. They aspire to be as witty, as strong and as sexy as her. However near the end, they realize she led a difficult life, in love only with herself and constantly struggling to be immortally young and beautiful. Sex symbols, even one of the most outrageous, were made to fade.

As Mae faded, Jo and Charlie realize they have acquired some of her bravery and some of the qualities she lacked, like caring for others and connecting with fellow human beings, rather than using them.

"Dirty Blonde" will be playing at the Performance Network Theatre on E. Huron St. in downtown Ann Arbor until Aug 19. Ticket prices vary according to seating and discounts and can be purchased by calling the box office during normal business hours at (734) 663-0681 or at performancenetwork.org
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