If you’ve ever heard someone say, “A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up,” or “There are no good girls gone wrong, just bad girls found out,” you’ve heard of Mae West. Vaudevillian, vixen, vamp, Mae West personified sex. She was light years ahead of Justin Timberlake — she brought sexy back before it was gone.

It’s West’s sassy, ahead-of-her-time attitude that South of Broadway Theatre Company has tried to capture with their production of Dirty Blonde, and the actors — with no help from their costumer, set designer, or even playwright — manage to do a pretty darn good job of it. The 2000 Broadway hit, which garnered playwright Claudia Shear a Tony nomination, (still kind of shocked at that one, we’ll get into it later), tells a tale within a tale. The first is the story of two lonely West fans living in New York in the early ’90s who meet at West’s grave and develop a friendship based on their shared obsession with the deceased diva. The second story is that of West’s life as she fought tooth and nail to become the star she always knew she would be.

In this three-person show, the ensemble is tasked with wearing multiple hats — literally. Together they portray 15 different roles. Making her Charleston theatrical debut, Sarah Coe stars as both West and the unlucky-in-love Jo, the West fanatic. Swinging her hips and jutting her chin, Coe excels in producing a very convincing Brooklyn accent complete with West attitude. She also manages to flip from one character to another with nothing more than a wig change. 

West’s myriad lovers, friends, and gay buddies are all played by Mark Gorman and Mark Poremba. Gorman, a theater veteran with a BFA in acting and 16 years of off-Broadway experience, primarily portrays a West fanatic and Jo’s hapless paramour Charlie — though a little overly enthusiastic at times, Gorman does a solid job carrying his third of the show.

Poremba takes on the brunt of the historical figures in West’s life and shines as a terrific character actor. He manages to pull off multiple accents and ages. Here are three local thespians any Charleston company should be proud to have.

Yet, in any production, the cast is at the mercy of a thousand different challenges, and sadly in this case, those elements nearly stack up against them. South of Broadway in North Charleston aspires to be “South Carolina’s first Broadway-quality, fully-professional theater company,” and that’s grand. They have the enthusiasm and the talent to eventually pull it off, but what they apparently don’t have is a set designer. The Dirty Blonde set looked like something a high school production would be embarrassed about. A muslin sheet provided the main backdrop and on it was the sketched skyline of Hollywood and New York City.                

Given a skilled hand, this minimalist approach could have worked — but the skills were lacking. I know theater companies such as South of Broadway are on tight budgets, but investing a little cash to buy some stencils would have been worth the expense. In addition to basically no set, the cast also had to deal with essentially no audience. The black box theater hosted about 18 guests. Needless to say, there was plenty of leg room.

Perhaps the most startling part of Dirty Blonde, especially given its Tony nominations, was the second act and its rather bizarre plot twist. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say this: I’m all for a little drag action, but I found the sexual tension between Jo and Charlie completely unconvincing due to the plot surprise, and for that I blame the playwright.

South of Broadway has the potential to be a terrific theater company. Dirty Blonde has some well-trained, eager actors and a great space to work in. Now they just need an audience and, perhaps next time, a more well-rounded script.