Oct 22, 2015
Arriving on the heels of Hamilton and a bold new interpretation of Spring Awakening, Dames at Sea (three out of four stars), the latest musical offering of this still-young Broadway season, may seem like a fairly frivolous bit of business.
This feather-light musical comedy — perhaps best known for showcasing a very young Bernadette Peters in its original off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway stagings — takes us back to the 1930s, when Busby Berkeley diverted film audiences with dizzying, showgirl-laden romps. There are also nods to Cole Porter, both in George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s book and in the breezy songs they crafted with composer Jim Wise, which suggest ditties Porter might have written in his sleep — then trashed the morning after.
So why bring this trifle to Broadway, for the first time, 49 years after its downtown premiere? Never mind; just check your cares and pretensions at the door of the Helen Hayes Theatre, where this production opened Thursday, and prepare to be thoroughly charmed.
Give thanks to veteran choreographer and director Randy Skinner, whose various Broadway credits include a sparkling 2001 revival of 42nd Street. Like that musical, Dames follows a fresh-faced ingenue with Broadway stars in her eyes and a big break in her near future. We meet Ruby, the role Peters introduced, as she arrives from Utah and lands a gig as chorus girl. When Ruby meets a sailor and aspiring songwriter, Dick (cue the hokey, harmless double entendres), we know that more than professional success awaits her.
Alas, the show’s imperious leading lady, Mona, also fancies Dick and is instinctively jealous of the young, naïve Ruby. More trouble looms when, hours before opening night, the theater is torn down; conveniently, there’s a battleship nearby, and Mona knows the captain.
Through it all, happily, Skinner keeps everyone dancing, providing exuberant tap routines that his cast executes with joyful facility. Eloise Kropp, the appealingly wholesome and lavishly athletic performer who plays Ruby, may not have the kewpie-doll allure that Peters surely brought to the part; but it’s hard to imagine many leading ladies who could provide the inexhaustible tap prowess demanded here — or deliver the understated sweetness that makes Kropp a pleasure to watch even when she’s standing still.
Less is required, at least physically, of Lesli Margherita’s Mona, though the actress plays the tyrannical vamp with infectious relish. John Bolton does deft comic double duty as her besotted Captain and beleaguered director, Hennesey.
Mara Davi sings and moves beautifully as Joan, Ruby’s more experienced, feistier colleague, who is called on to do nearly as much fancy footwork. Cary Tedder and Danny Gardner bring similar energy and panache to the roles of Dick and Lucky, Joan’s own sailor beau.
It’s worth noting that the last Broadway season was a good one for dance lovers, thanks to productions such as On The Town and An American In Paris. Dames, however frothy, should bring them more pleasure.