At the curtain call it struck home what’s special about the first Broadway production of Dames at Sea, the 1930’s musical created in the 1960s: Only six performers take bows. Busby Berkeley used casts ten times larger to do much the same show. But there’s the rub: It’s much the same show.
Fun and funny, full of rousing melodies and exciting bouts of tap dancing performed by six true talents, the revival at the Helen Hayes is, according to the show’s website, “reimagined for the bright lights of Broadway and taken to glamorous and spectacular new heights.” To the extent that it delivers on its marketing hype, Dames at Sea largely loses what made it distinctive in the first place.
When the show was presented at Caffe Cino, the Greenwich Village coffeehouse that launched the Off-Off Broadway movement, it was an expanded sketch called Dames at Sea, or Golddiggers Afloat. That it was a spoof of Hollywood’s backstage musicals (like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933) and its shipboard musicals (like Anything Goes) was clear before the first note was sung, thanks to the disparity between the makeshift, claustrophobic eight foot by eight foot stage and the slickly extravagant entertainments to which the show paid homage.
But the music by Jim Wise was pleasing, the lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller were clever, and the show had a secret weapon – a breathtaking 18-year-old performer named Bernadette Peters. Peters portrayed the ingénue, Ruby, an obvious take-off on Ruby Keeler, the star of so many of those singing and tap-dancing shows during the Great Depression.
The show was a hit. The re-named Dames at Sea eventually moved Off-Broadway, where it was praised for its ingenious staging.
Nearly half a century after its Off-Off Broadway debut, the Broadway version isn’t staged with exceptional ingenuity; it doesn’t have to be. The production values are ratcheted up, but not as much as the ticket prices. There is an eight-member orchestra rather than a lone pianist, but that’s less than a third the size of the orchestra for the On The Town revival; the set, although hardly lavish by Broadway standards, includes a wrecking ball scene that would hardly be possible anywhere but the Great White Way.
What remains constant is the opportunity Dames at Sea offers to gifted performers to strut their stuff. All six cast members deserve mention:
Eloise Kropp is Ruby, the Broadway discovery who arrives in the morning from Utah with a suitcase that contains nothing but her dancing shoes and is the toast of Broadway by evening. In a great example of art imitating art, Kropp, a world-class tap dancer, can herself count as a Broadway discovery; her only previous role on Broadway was in the ensemble of On The Town.
Cary Tedder, who’s spent a decade in Broadway ensembles, is Dick, the sailor and songwriter who recovers Ruby’s suitcase, discovers they are from the same small town in Utah, and instantly becomes her beau.
The marvelous Mara Davi plays the wise-cracking chorus girl Joan, who pairs up with Dick’s sailor buddy Lucky, portrayed by Danny Gardner making his Broadway debut.
The reliable Broadway veteran John Bolton hams it up winningly in two roles, as the disgruntled theater producer and director Hennesy and the lovesick Captain.
If there can be said to be a standout in such a cast, it is Lesli Margherita, who made her Broadway debut as the hilariously child-hating Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda. She follows up with a star turn as the deadly diva Mona, who in time-honored fashion gets ill at the last second, allowing Ruby to replace her, but not until Mona sings the delicious torch song “That Mister Man of Mine”:
My life is black
Since that rich man adored me, I’ve had no lack of men
but they all bored me,
he wants me back
but now he can’t afford me.
If there is no scrimping on such knowing humor throughout the script , the biggest change on Broadway is that the show somehow no longer feels like an ironic if loving send-up of a 30’s extravaganza, but something closer to an imitation of one. Randy Skinner, the director and choreographer for Dames at Sea, who also directed the 2001 Broadway production of 42nd Street, reinforces this impression by starting the show with a black-and-white movie projection on a screen that exactly reproduces the opening credits of a 1930’s musical, complete with scratch marks.
Yes, the plot of Dames at Sea is deliberately absurd: Hours before the opening night curtain is to rise on a new Broadway show, the cast learns that their theater is being demolished, so, with the help of theater-loving sailors, the show moves to a naval battleship. But this registers as just an exaggeration of the original plotlines. Yes, Dames at Sea is campy, but surely most present-day moviegoers view the old 30’s movie musicals as just as campy – maybe more campy, since not intentionally so.
Not as tuneful a pastiche musical as Sondheim’s Follies, nowhere near as inventive a show-on-a-shoestring as 39 Steps, not as razzmatazz as the genuine old-time musicals like 42nd Street or the recent revival of Anything Goes, Dames at Sea arrives on a Broadway that is redefining the American musical with such shows as Hamilton, Fun Home, the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, and even An American in Paris.
Even if that were not the case, it sends an unfortunate message that this is the first production at the Helen Hayes under its new ownership, the non-profit Second Stage Theater, who are leasing the theater to the musical’s commercial producers. “With this new home,” the theater writes on its website, “Second Stage will be the only theatre company on Broadway dedicated exclusively to developing and producing works by living American playwrights.” In fact, all three creators of Dames at Sea are dead.
Dames at Sea is on stage at the Helen Hayes (240 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue), NYC.
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