In the beginning of Claudia Shear's tribute to Mae West and those who worship her, the blonde bombshell, during her vaudeville days, is introduced as "the debutante who came out in 1910 and hasn't been home since." Shear has written a loving, witty, charming show; although it is low on dramatic tension and depth of personality for Mae, it makes up for it in spectacle and entertainment.
The original Broadway cast—Shear, Tom Riis Farrell, and Bob Stillman—shows great chops in the dual storyline, in what are surely dream roles for performers: acting, singing, dancing and, er, cross-dressing. Choosing to savor Mary Jane West's predatory sexual freedom and suggestive, barbed wit, the playwright saves the vulnerability for herself in the character of Jo, who meets fellow West acolyte Charlie (Farrell), only to find herself falling for a guy who, when not working at the New York Public Library's performing arts collection, is dressing like Mae. At least he doesn't wear her outfits to the office. The accompanying story of West's life includes Stillman as her first and only husband, and as a longtime companion, as she enters her dotage, still thinking she is a sex symbol.
Shear conceived the work with director James Lapine, whose fine, fluid transitions include many quick costume changes and a split-second shift for Jo and Charlie from a nightclub to the back of a cab, which brought a round of applause from the opening-night audience. These performers are impeccable. Shear is believable as Mae and never cloying as Jo. Farrell has tremendous comedic timing, whether playing a nervous teen or W.C. Fields. Stillman can play it crass and straight or wildly flamboyant and gay; he can also play killer piano. Tech is all tops, especially scenic designer Douglas Stein's raked room sloping toward the image of the eyes of Mae, and Susan Hilferty's form-fitting, feathery costuming.
If Shear shies away from dramatic fireworks, overt or covert, in either storyline, we are at least thankful that the chosen moments of soulfulness are, if fleeting, tastefully handled. As Farrell intones, toward a predictable but pleasant end, "She found what worked, she froze it and never let it go."
"Dirty Blonde," presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 5 & 9 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Feb. 27-Apr. 4. $39.50-49.50. (626) 356-7529.