Oct 23, 2015
Remember talent? Before the days of cinematic settings, flying actors and the obligatory confetti-cannon finale, that’s pretty much all audiences would expect to see at Broadway musicals. Talent.
And while there’s certainly no lack of talent spread throughout the current crop of Times Square’s musical offerings, you’ll often have to dig through the moody lighting, non-stop scenery and fourth wall staging to find it.
DAMES AT SEA, a delightful gem of an entertainment with terrifically catchy music by Jim Wise and a sweetly comic book and fun, perfectly crafted lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, affectionately spoofs the kind of 1930s movie musicals that were directed by Busby Berkeley and starred Ruby Keeler. The show premiered in 1966 on an eight foot by eight foot platform at the Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village and was mounted so that the six actors playing the leads also played the singing and dancing chorus.
By Broadway standards, the intimate Helen Hayes theatre might be considered the Main Stem’s version of an eight foot by eight foot platform, so Dames at Sea‘s premiere Broadway production is also a tiny affair featuring six actors with more or less equal-sized roles. Anna Louizos‘ fine set changes at intermission, but stays just the way it is for each of the two acts. There are no dark moods in Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz lighting and director/choreographer Randy Skinner‘s staging plays out to the house. Under such conditions, actors have no production values to cling to. Dames at Sea offers only one special effect. Talent. Lots of it. And it’s right smack in the middle of the stage for all to clearly see.
The most technological “spectacle” in sight is the clever opening that introduces the show with Paramount style black and white film credits. When the curtain rises, all is in buoyant living color.
The show’s wispy plot, a connect-the-dots between sprightly period numbers, involves a Broadway show about to open that night if the wreckers don’t tear down the theatre in the afternoon. A Ruby Keeler stand-in, named Ruby, is a spunky lass just off the bus with dreams to make it on Broadway. Not only does she nail a job in the chorus, but she falls in love four measures after falling into the arms of a sailor named Dick (as in Powell) who happens to be a brilliant songwriter.
When the theatre walls start getting slammed with the business end of a wrecking ball, there’s only one sensible thing to do; open the show on board the gob’s battleship. And if you haven’t figured out that the star gets seasick and Ruby has to learn her part and fill in at the last minute, you haven’t been paying attention.
Nearly every number pays homage to a classic movie musical moment, like the Cole Porter-ish list song, the letter-writing song, the sad song about rain and the lusty one about a train ride. One musical scene, “Singapore Sue,” is a take-off on FOOTLIGHT PARADE’s “Shanghai Lil,” where Jimmy Cagney played an America sailor looking for the Chinese girl who stole his heart, played by Keeler. As originally written and staged “Singapore Sue” might be considered racially offensive, so this time the lyric has been substantially rewritten and the white actors don’t wear yellowface or try to imitate cartoon Chinese accents.
As Ruby, Eloise Kropp perfectly matches the wholesome earnestness of Ruby Keeler, with the extra added attraction that she can act. Her rapid-fire tapping elicits gasps and cheers and her sunny exuberance is charming, especially when she dances with her newfound love, played with gutsy sincerity by Cary Tedder.
John Bolton pays terrific tribute to 42ND STREET’s Julian Marsh, playing the show’s producer as a tension-filled dynamo. He doubles as the ship’s blustery captain, who happens to be an old flame of the shows diva, played with hilarious over-the-top comic panache by Lesli Margherita, resembling Norma Desmond as she might have been played by Ann Miller.
Skinner has his crew briskly deliver the dialogue, perhaps not wanting the audience to think about it too much. The main attraction here is the singing and dancing and Dames at Sea can boast six performances by talented actors hell-bent on entertaining you.