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Grande Dames

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Mae West was famous for saying -too much of a good thing is wonderful.- She may have been correct, but just the right amount of a good thing is sometimes even better. The story of Mae West-s life--from her childhood as a vaudevillian in Brooklyn, to becoming the highest paid woman in Hollywood-could easily be the subject of a bloated bio-pic; but Claudia Shear-s confection of a play, Dirty Blonde, clocks in at just over an hour and a half, and that-s just enough time to concisely-and comically-capture Ms. West-s life on stage.

Mae West is, of course, the titular Dirty Blonde, but the play also involves the budding romantic relationship between two awkward and frumpy New Yorkers, who also just happen to be obsessed with Mae West. The play alternates between scenes of them, and scenes of West and the various men in her life. This structure makes Dirty Blonde a sort of seedy, show biz Arcadia-but the gimmick works as anecdotal, vaudeville-style scenes are the perfect way to tell the Mae West story.

At the center of all of this is Claudia Shear, who not only wrote and conceived the show, but who also takes on the role of Mae West. Shear may not look exactly like Ms. West, but her performance is less an impersonation and more an impression. (Though she does imitate West-s raunchy laconic purr, as well as her walk, which is aptly described as like -a truck driver with hips.-) She creates a vivid caricature, a sort of three-dimensional Hirshfeld sketch and whether she-s playing West at age 26 or 86, Shear perfectly captures the crude carnality and charm that made Mae West a 20th century icon.

Claudia Shear-s performance and her play were nominated for just about every theatrical award around when it played on Broadway a few seasons back and the talented cast, as well as James Lapine-s sleek and simple staging, is identical to what was seen in New York. Granted, the Pasadena Playhouse doesn-t have quite the same intimate feeling as Broadway-s jewel box: the Helen Hayes Theater-but if you happen to be seated in the historic playhouse-s balcony, there are moments in Dirty Blonde, where if you squint your eyes and use your imagination, the sensation of experiencing an old-time Vaudeville show from the rafters almost becomes real.

Another woman who specializes in channeling the sights and songs of the 20-s, 30-s and 40-s is Ute Lemper, who was in town for only one performance this past weekend. Dirty Blonde recalls New York and Hollywood between the wars, but Lemper is famous for evoking Berlin and Paris during that same tumultuous time. For this show though, Lemper took the audience on a musical voyage that also included Buenos Aires and Jerusalem-not to mention a trip to the Upper East Side, as she performed a rendition of Sondheim-s famous Ladies Who Lunch.

What was most impressive about Lemper was her ability to sing new songs, forgotten songs, as well as familiar standards-all with sincerity and intelligence, without ever descending into camp. Lemper-s show feels fresh and alive not just because she is a great chanteuse, but because she is, in the best, old-fashioned sense of the word, an entertainer.

And finally, for those craving yet another larger-than-life diva, a true grande dame is gracing Southern California with his, I mean her presence. Yes, possums, Dame Edna will be performing live in Orange County this weekend. This internationally famous character is the creation of actor Barry Humphries, and his most recent show, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, received strong reviews in New York and around the country.

In the press release, Dame Edna promises all attendees at least one major laugh per half minute. Joking or not, let-s hope this Australian glamour queen puts on a good show, for as Mae West also said: -An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.-

An Evening with Dame Edna opens tonight and continues through Sunday at Segerstrom Hall, Dirty Blonde runs until April 4 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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