Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mae West: SEX-cellent Sex

Robert Hurwitt, the San Francisco Chronicle Theater Critic, went up to see Mae at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, California. Let's hear how it feels to devote one entire night to excellent "Sex" and Mae West.

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• • Polite Applause for 'Sex'
• • By Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic

• • Mae West wasn't the first to discover that sex sells, but she was the first to put it on a Broadway marquee. As she was being hauled off to jail with her cast, she told a reporter she thought it would be the making of her. It was. Within a few years of the 1926 opening of "Sex," which ran for almost a year before it was busted, she was in Hollywood and one of America's best-known and highest-paid stars.
• • Not bad for a former child entertainer from a rough part of Brooklyn daughter of a boxer and a corsetmaker who had pretty much worn out her welcome in vaudeville by her early 30s. And not too shabby for the Aurora Theatre, which looks as if it's having a great time having "Sex" for what may be a local premiere (the script was long believed lost until rediscovered and published about 10 years ago). With the invaluable Delia MacDougall playing an irresistible vamp on the West persona,
"Sex" is an entertaining romp on the naughtier edge of the Jazz Age.

• • The script holds up surprisingly well given that it isn't very good. West, who'd just started writing plays (she'd written her own vaudeville material and would later write most of her screenplays), bought a fallen-woman-meets-sad-end melodrama by Jack Byrne called "Following the Fleet" and rewrote it (under the name Jane Mast). She stuffed its second act with songs for herself, which made the hackneyed plot even more awkward. But she also infused it with her brand of bawdy wit and street slang, turned its moralism on its head and gave its now savvy hooker, Margy LaMont, a happy ending on her own terms.
• • Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross and his crew have pared the script well and reduced its large cast to eight, with everyone but MacDougall playing many parts (in playful quick changes of Cassandra Carpenter's eye-catching flapper costumes). They've added material, ranging from context-setting reviews and narrative to some immortal West quips. More important, Ross and sure-fingered accompanist-music director Billy Philadelphia have spread the songs witty period numbers and Philadelphia originals throughout the show.
• • The cast handles the singing with varying degrees of success (Kristin Stokes, Craig Jessup, Robert Brewer and MacDougall sell their numbers well), aided by Jayne Zaban's engaging Charleston-and-shimmy choreography. The characters are sketched in aptly broad strokes, from Danny Wolohan's sinisterly cocky, vicious Rocky, Margy's pimp, to Stokes' piteously girlie hooker Agnes, Steve Irish's suburbanite businessman and worldly, steadfast English seaman, and Jessup's various cops and johns.
• • Margy is the center of the show, with MacDougall delivering Mae West's lines in the familiar Brooklyn drawl as she faces down not only cops, johns and the dangerous Rocky but also the wealthy socialite Clara Stanton (a hilarious portrait of guilty self-righteousness by Maureen McVerry). Clara, on a slumming expedition into Montreal's red-light district, ends up drugged (by Rocky) in Margy's bed, then blames Margy, who'd rescued her, to avoid a scandal.
• • The story (and Greg Dunham's clever revolving Deco set) follows Margy (and the fleet) to Trinidad, where a rich kid named Jimmy (Brewer) falls for her, proposes and takes her home to Connecticut to meet his parents. Mom, no surprise (to us), turns out to be Clara. Margy gets some revenge, exposes hypocrisy and gets her man as well.
• • No, the transvestite hookers weren't in West's script. They're director Tom Ross' tribute to West's next play, "The Drag," which she was about to open as Broadway's first showcase of gay drag entertainers when "Sex" was busted which was probably one reason for the timing of the police raid. Another was the censors' horror at the large numbers of women flocking to "Sex" to revel in a strong, sexually up-front woman making her own way in a world of controlling men and moralistic hypocrites. That element isn't dated at all. So it's nice to report that, even in its 80s, "Sex" is still a pleasure.
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• • Source: San Francisco Chronicle
• • Byline: Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
• • Published on: 13 November 2007
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• • Mae West was born on 17 August 1893 in Brooklyn, NY.
• • Mae West died on 20 November 1980 in Los Angeles, CA.
• • The Empress of Sex lives forever in our hearts.

• • Come up and see Mae every day online:

• • Photo: • • Mae West • • none • •

Mae West.

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