Oct 22, 2015
“Dames at Sea” is a technicolor, tap dance-filled tribute to the movie musicals of the 1930s. It’s delightful, and it doesn’t take itself seriously for a minute.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A gal gets off a bus from out West and lands a part in a Broadway musical that same day. When the leading lady gets sick and needs a replacement, the frazzled director eyes the untested ingenue, shakes a fist and proclaims: “It’s a chance in a million … but it just might work.”
After an evening with the “Dames” ensemble of dancers and singers, directed and choreographed by Encores! vet Randy Skinner — he also worked on the 2001 revival of “42nd Street” — you will surely agree. It works.
With a book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, and music by Jim Wise, “Dames at Sea” is just now making its first stop on Broadway.
The original 1968 off-Broadway production launched the career of Bernadette Peters, who starred as Ruby, the fresh-off-the-bus girl with Broadway dreams. “Dames” then transferred to what is now the Lucille Lortel, where it ran for more than 500 performances.
“Dames” has two stock plot lines: there’s the girl from a small town who wants to make it big, and there’s the show that suddenly has no space to go on, and has to be rescued. Somehow, everyone ends up performing on a battleship.
Joining Ruby for the fun is the leading lady of the show-within-a-show, Mona Kent, played here by brash and busty Lesli Margherita, a vet of 1,000 “Matilda” performances as Mrs. Wormwood and, in London, an Olivier Award-winner for “Zorro the Musical.”
“Dames at Sea” opens with Margherita in a flashy, affectionate and snark-free tribute to Wall Street. With that as a bar, it falls to Margherita to set a tone of ironic distance to everything that comes after.
Mona’s a girl from Brooklyn who ditched her accent and has made it big playing sultry roles on stage and off. Margherita is over-the-top, and it’s no small accomplishment that her Mona stays on the audience’s good side, even telling Ruby, who will step into her role, “I want you to be so darn good, I’ll hate you for the rest of my life.”
Eloise Kropp, late of “On the Town,” is winning as Ruby, who will get her big break by dinnertime. She’s sweet-natured and determined, and a super dancer. Mara Davi is excellent as sidekick Joan, a no-nonsense actress who gets her boyfriend Lucky (the rubber-faced Danny Gardner, of Encores!’ “Lady, Be Good”) to sabotage Mona’s opening night.
The males are no less charismatic, particularly Cary Tedder as Dick, who is from Ruby’s Utah hometown and, by golly, also happens to be a budding songwriter. His agile dancing and wide-eyed grin actually call to mind Tony Yazbeck in “On the Town.”
John Bolton (Broadway’s “A Christmas Story”) is endearingly cartoonish as both the put-upon theater director, and, later, the patrician captain of the battleship, who has his eyes on Mona.
The songs in “Dames at Sea” have a tendency to blend together, but also share an uncynical sweetness. Case in point: Kropp, with her heart-shaped face, tapping to “Raining in My Heart” while the company dances behind her, their umbrellas out as if we’d suddenly landed on the lot where they were filming “Singin’ in the Rain.”
In other compositions, references fly by, but they firmly anchor us in the play’s era: “It isn’t Jean Harlow/It Isn’t Greta Garbo/It’s You, It’s You, It’s You,” goes a stanza from the first act love song between Ruby and Dick. Later, the same piece rhymes Shirley Temple with Aimee Semple. It’s like listening to a decades-old version of Madonna’s “Vogue.”
Six actors do all the work. “Dames at Sea” is a small-scale musical, crammed into Broadway’s teensiest theater, but with the gumption of a mighty battleship.