By Karen Isaacs
Dames at Sea is a delightful, small musical that is a spoof of all those 1930s movie musicals about putting on a show. So the questions that needs to be asked are: Does this show deserve a Broadway production? Can it work in an 800+ seat theater? Can it attract an audience?
Billed as its Broadway debut, this production of Dames at Sea features a number of newcomers who are certainly talented, but the questions remain. My best guests are: a qualified yes, yes and with difficulty.
The show began life as a sketch in 1966 which was expanded until it reached its current two hour length and moved to off-Broadway where it ran for several years. It is credited with launching the career of Bernadette Peters.
As in any spoof, it helps if you are familiar the source material: The multiple ‘30s movie musicals that featured Busby Berkley numbers, and stories that revolved around the eager young actress and the aging star. A number of years after Dames at Sea closed, Broadway did have a huge hit show that told the same story: 42nd Street, based on a specific film.
In 2015, most of the audience is not familiar with this genre so the spoof elements of the show are lost.
The show opens when Ruby, an eager aspiring dancer from Utah, arrives backstage at a musical currently in rehearsal. At the urging of Joan, an experienced performer, the harried producer/director lets her show her stuff and voilá – she’s in the chorus. But her excitement is short-circuited when she realizes she left her suitcase at the bus terminal. Never fear, a young sailor had seen her, picked it up and followed her to the theater: she is reunited with her red tap shoes. In typical film fashion, it turns out that Dick is from her home town and a composer. Soon Lucky, Dick’s sailor friend shows up and is smitten with Joan.
But there are two major flies in the ointment. One is in the person of Mona Kent, the aging and demanding star who takes a romantic interest in Dick and wants his songs for her. The other is that the theater is being torn down. So hours before opening night, Dick suggests that given the title of the show, it be performed on the Navy ship he’s assigned to. Mona helps up because the Captain is an all flame and…..well, you know the rest. Mona gets seasick, Ruby goes on, and everything ends happily.
The show was written George Haimsohn and Robin Miller (book and lyrics) and Jim Wise (music) – not names that are known. None of them did much theatrical work after this success.
As in any musical spoof, the numbers must sound familiar. They must reference specific song types and often specific, well known songs. Again, if you are familiar with ‘30s music, it will be easy to see the connections; they easily could have appeared in musical films or stage musicals of the period.
The six person cast works hard and conveys the “gee-whizz” enthusiasm needed. Each sings and dances very well.
Eloise Kropp plays Ruby with verve and incredible tap skills; she’s joined by Cary Tedder as Dick the obtuse sailor, Mara Davi as Joan and Danny Gardner as Lucky. Each of them dances up a storm and sings delightfully.
John Bolton plays both the harried producer and the ship’s captain and creates two different characters. Lesli Margherita as Mona Kent seems at times to over stress the “chewing the scenery” aspects of the character.
Credit Randy Skinner for both the direction and choreography – you often forget there are just six performers on stage. The production team creates both the backstage and the ship; they aren’t supposed to look realistic but as if they were created on a backlot. Anna Louizos did the scenic design while the costumes by David C. Woolard did a good job creating the ‘30s feel.
Dames at Sea is at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St. For tickets contact Telecharge.