Bangor, Maine — If there’s one thing theatergoers will come away with after seeing Penobscot Theatre’s production of “Dirty Blonde,” it’s that Mae West was a woman far ahead of her time. The show, which runs through Feb. 27, puts to vivid light the life of the Hollywood icon. It memorably fuses together the many different phases of her career with an effective back-story about two diehard fans. If an audience member didn’t already have some knowledge of West’s life, “Dirty Blonde” makes a strong case for her importance as a trailblazing female artist.
That said, PTC’s “Dirty Blonde” is, like West herself, terrifically fun but sometimes flawed. AJ Mooney as West does her best to embody the playful, unhinged sexuality of the character, but sometimes misses the laserlike zing of West’s famous one-liners, leaving the punch of her words slightly limp. It’s a fine line between homage and caricature, and when Mooney does get it right, she’s brilliant. A weekend’s worth of shows should tighten her performance and let that crackling wit and inner strength shine through.
Physically, she takes on West’s aggressively feminine poses and walk with aplomb, letting just enough vulnerability peek through to remind audience members that despite her larger-than-life persona, West was human. As Jo, the West superfan, she is engrossingly realistic — Jo is a woman who finds strength in West’s unshakable sense of self, and Mooney deftly navigates the warring sides in the character’s personality.
Gary Littman and Ian Lowe, both from the Actors’ Equity Association labor union that represents American actors and stage managers, perform as an array of characters, with Littman primarily taking on the role of Charlie, the other West super fan. Littman infuses Charlie with sweetness that’s tempered by a defensive posture, brought on by years of hiding his true nature. In the end both Jo and Charlie are able to overcome their inner turmoil, partially through their shared devotion to West, and partially through the love the pair develop for one another. Their relationship is the foundation of the play, and both Mooney and Littman are endearing in their roles.
Lowe, taking on multiple characters, from West’s early, mostly unknown husband to her later companions, is a spellbinding song-and-dance man, equally comfortable playing piano as he is dancing and singing.
The set, designed by Erik D. Diaz, boasts a rotating platform that becomes an apartment, stage and gravesite, among other things. It is shiny and colorful when it needs to be, but at times it’s also intimate and low key. West is almost as known for her sense of fashion as she is her personality, and Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes are big, flashy and spot-on. “Dirty Blonde” is an entertaining production, and like its heroine, it burns brightly.