Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 22, 2015
Dames at Sea Book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller. Music by Jim Wise. Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner. Music supervision, vocal and dance arrangements by Rob Berman. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Scenic design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Ken Billington/Jason Kantrowitz. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: John Bolton, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner, Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita, Cary Tedder, Tessa Grady. Kristie Kerwin, Ian Knauer, Kevin Worley.
Just by opening at the Helen Hayes, George Haimsohn, Robin Miller, and Jim Wise's 1968 musical has instantly caused Broadway to shed a whole lot of weight. Just being within a half-block of this electron-light concoction is all that's necessary to drop all the pounds recently added to the Main Steam by heavy fare like Fun Home, Hamilton, and The King and I. Heck, Something Rotten! and the recently closed revival of On the Town look calorie-laden compared to this.
You know what? That's okay. Sort of. Dames at Sea may be incredibly limited in its scope and aims, but it does what it does smartly enough that, when it's adeptly helmed by a director and choreographer like this production's Randy Skinner, you don't really care. No, it never registers as much more than what it is: a barely veiled spoof of 1930s movie musicals like Footlight Parade and 42nd Street that doesn't even bother to dissociate its characters from the performers who originated the archetypes they follow (there's Ruby for Ruby Keeler, Dick for Dick Powell, Joan for Joan Blondellyou get the idea). But it jumps into its daffiness with both feet, and splashes you with fun. For a mere two hours (counting the intermission), even I can't find a way to argue with its charms.
Those are plentiful, by the way, starting with songs that the likes of Harry Warren, DaSylva, Brown, and Henderson, and maybe Cole Porter wouldn't automatically kick to the curb. The opener, "Wall Street," is a dopey little paean to the Financial District that's a close cuddly cousin to "We're in the Money," and thrusts us into the big-bucks Broadway milieu that will be mocked nonstop for the rest of the evening. There's also the requisite sputtering torch song ("That Mister Man of Mine," the ethnic specialty ("Singapore Sue"), and the spirit-rouser ("Good Times Are Here to Stay").
The most winning song, though, is the second: "It's You," a gloriously bouncy duet, with lyrics that play off the era's concept of fame being nothing compared to that unique person you love: "It isn't Richard Arlen / Or Spanky McFarland / It's You, it's you, it's you ... Not the Barrymore trio / Nor Dolores del Rio / It's you, it's you, it's you."
That's sung by Ruby (Eloise Kropp, in the role originated by, of all people, Bernadette Peters) and Dick (Cary Tedder), mere milliseconds after they meet. Ruby's a would-be chorine just in town from Utah ("I'm a dancer. I just got off the bus and I want to be in a Broadway show!") with a knack for picking up the most complicated routines instantaneously, which is good, as another girl just dropped out and they need a replacement because they open that night. Dick is the helpful sailor who chased Ruby all the way from the bus depot to bring her the suitcase she accidentally left there. Their romance is, from that point, assured.
Of course there are complications. The show's headliner, Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita), has her eye on Dick's immense songwriting talent. (Yes, he's a songwriter. Just go with it.) The choreographer, Hennesey (John Bolton), isn't sure Ruby can do it, but is persuaded by sexy second banana Joan (Mara Davi) to give her a chance. Last but not least, there's Lucky (Danny Gardner), a sailor friend of Dick's who also has a prior history with Joan but is hoping to respark their long-dormant attraction. Jealousy, betrayal, confusion, and financial insolvency ensue, forcing the ever-bickering sextet to get along and, when they're kicked out of their Broadway theater, put on their show on a Navy battleship.
Although it's a total turn-off-your-brain affair, it's so expertly executed that you can't help but buy into it wholesale. Haimsohn and Miller's book and lyrics are on-point parody of the genre without ever winking overly hard, and Wise's music is sufficiently infectious to make the silliness sing. The sets (by Anna Louizos), costumes (David C. Woolard), and lights (Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz) give big-budget Technicolor a big, sloppy kiss, without letting visual opulence taint the essential innocence of the proceedings. (Another example: Accompanying the overture is a wonderfully wry full filmed credit sequence.) Nor could the orchestrations (by Jonathan Tunick) or the seven piece band (conducted by Encores!'s Rob Berman, who also did the sparkling vocal and dance arrangements) land much more soundly.
Skinner is in top form with both his easygoing direction and especially his dances, which are so packed with showstopping razzmatazz that you may sometimes forget just how few people are onstage. It finds its fullest expression in the breathless 11-o'clock tap number "Star Tar," for Ruby's big break (Mona got sick because... oh, who cares), with Kropp a smile-inducing Gatling gun of fleet-footedness that should catapult her into current musical theatre's upper echelon of most vivacious triple threats. But the smaller numbers, whether "It's You" or "Choo-Choo Honeymoon" for Joan and Lucky or "The Beguine" for Mona and the captain she's seducing are no less inviting and every bit as astute.
The whole company is top-notch, whether as comedians, terpsichoreans, or singers, and this production benefits greatly from likes of Bolton's rubber-faced bravura, Davi's brassy and saucy attitude, and Tedder's aw-shucks appeal. But special mention must be made of Margherita, who ruthlessly applies Norma Desmondlike star wattage (and Empire State Building-sized glares and gestures) to make Mona the sort of unbearable, irresistible star we need more of these days.
So delightful is everything here that it seems a shame to question it too much But even at its hardcore-hoofing best, it's a tiny show that struggles to fill out the diminutive Helen Hayes stage. And what does it say about present-day Broadway that this microscopic property, which once mocked its excesses, is now seen as possessing just the right size and earnestness to succeed?
Forget I asked. Those are dark questions that are still being dispelled by this revival's radiant glow. I'll never give up craving more and better serious musicals (and you shouldn't, either), but let's hope that the rest of this season'sand, heck, maybe this decade'sfluff is as good as this Dames at Sea.