'Dames at Sea': Theater Review

Broadway has often been down this road lately, but it’s nonetheless a sweet tap-your-troubles-away nostalgia trip.

Reimagining the Busby Berkeley-era extravaganza in miniature, the 1968 off-Broadway hit shuffles uptown with its perky homage to 1930s movie musicals.

How does an innocent girl from Centerville, Utah, who gets off the bus in New York one morning with nothing but a pair of tap shoes to her name, end up a Broadway star and the darling of the Navy by evening? That's the kind of blatantly harebrained plot that propelled the escapist movie musicals of the 1930s, in which love at first sight overcame all obstacles and no challenge was ever great enough to crush the urge to put on a show. Dames at Sea reinvents one of those big-screen spectacles as a shrunken stage musical — a baby Busby Berkeley if you will — with an appealing cast of six that makes its featherweight pleasures infectious.

Whether there's an audience for this effusive salute to a kitschy, corny genre that most Broadway theatergoers have either forgotten or never knew remains an open question — especially when recent seasons have seen comparable confections in more lavish presentations, with superior songs by such masters as the Gershwins and Cole Porter.

A sweet candy morsel serving unapologetically empty calories, the show was first seen in a tiny Greenwich Village performance space in 1966. It moved to off-Broadway two years later, making a star of newcomer Bernadette Peters in the role of chorus girl Ruby, who triumphs after stepping in for the ailing headliner.

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The pastiche skills of writer-lyricists George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, and composer Jim Wise (all of them now deceased) make it clear they had a thorough knowledge of and affection for the frothy extravaganzas that were a staple of Depression-era Hollywood entertainment. Dames at Sea doesn't have the Brechtian double-edge of the 1981 movie Pennies from Heaven, which takes the same inspiration in a darker direction; or the meta-cleverness of The Drowsy Chaperone, the 2006 show that parodies the madcap silliness of 1920s Broadway musicals with a similar spirit. Instead, the show builds its wink at the audience into the material, enabling the cast to play it virtually straight while threading referential names, phrases and musical motifs throughout.

The musical is right in the wheelhouse of director-choreographer Randy Skinner, who never met a nostalgic dance interlude he didn't like. He identifies the vintage with a black and white Vitaphone movie titles sequence, complete with picture cards for each of the cast, their faces framed by nautical lifesaving rings. The opening number, "Wall Street," tips its sequined top hat to Gold Diggers of 1933, right down to the dancing currency, while key characters borrow their names from Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, the stars of that film and its kin, such as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. You don't have to have a TCM habit and a soft spot for the movie musicals of the period to appreciate the homage, but it helps.

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Vainglorious diva Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita) is all set for her opening night, but not much else is curtain-ready in Dames at Sea, the latest beleaguered production from Broadway impresario Harry Hennesey (John Bolton). Another of his gold-digging chorines has run off with a millionaire, which puts fresh-off-the-bus Ruby (Eloise Kropp) in the right place at the right time. In an instant, she finds a bosom buddy in wisecracking hoofer Joan (Mara Davi), and falls head over heels for Dick (Cary Tedder), a sailor from her hometown. He's trailed by Lucky (Danny Gardner), a fellow seafarer who happens to be an old flame of Joan's.

Wouldn't you know it, Dick turns out to be an aspiring songwriter? His numbers are swiftly folded into the show with the blessing of Mona, who sets her sights on the sailor as well as his talent. That spells heartache for Ruby, but of course conflicts arise and are resolved here in short order. A bigger problem emerges when developers arrive to tear down the theater to build a roller rink, with the wrecking ball descending at the close of Act I. But (in a nod to Follow the Fleet) Dick and Lucky have a ship in the harbor, and what better stage than a poop deck? Also, how can the Captain (Bolton again) object when his romantic history with Mona makes him putty in her hands?

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Obviously, this is flimsy nonsense, designed merely as a skeleton on which to hang song after song, almost all of them punctuated by a dance break of tap-happy exuberance or graceful ballroom romance. True to the original model, there are also amusingly random splashes of exotica, from a production number called "Singapore Sue," recounting the tragic tale of a sailor's lost love, to the sultry Latin sounds of "The Beguine," which reunites Mona and the Captain. And "The Echo Waltz," with its mountain milkmaids wielding fluorescent hoops under black light, is a nod to the glow-in-the-dark violins of "The Shadow Waltz," from Gold Diggers of 1933.

It's a big part of the joke that, unlike those populous Berkeley numbers, there are never more than six people onstage here, and the hard-working actors have a ball with it. The central role of the cute ingenue might have benefited from a more captivating presence — the fresh-faced Kropp is no Peters, her dance ability outweighing her tentative acting — and Tedder and Gardner are perhaps too interchangeable. But Skinner has assembled a likeable cast that fits the material, both in terms of the stock types they're playing and the kind of screen stars associated with them.

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They all have impressive tap skills, giving the stage a rhythmic pounding in numbers like "Choo Choo Honeymoon" and "Star Tar," the latter giving Kropp a big moment to shine. Even that old standby of the dance routine under umbrellas is pulled off with panache in Skinner’s winsome moves for "Raining in My Heart." There's not a huge amount of variation in the choreography, but it's polished and consistently high-energy.

The show's over-the-top scene-stealer — also the closest it gets to a villain, which is not very close — is Margherita, fresh from her 1,000-performance run as the title character's crass mother in Matilda. Her Mona is classic Brooklyn trash reinvented as a grand thespian, turning on a dime from high melodrama to an ingratiating megawatt smile. Her torchy rendition of "That Mister Man of Mine" (a riff on the Fanny Brice hit "My Man") is a hilarious showstopper.

Anna Louizos' sets depict the battleship, a 42nd Street theater and the show-within-the-show in suitably playful style; David C. Woolard's period costumes are charming; and the sugary lighting by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz drips with warm color. And despite a band of just eight musicians in the pit, Jonathan Tunick's buoyant orchestrations sound quite robust under music director Rob Berman's baton. 

Cast: John Bolton, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner, Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita, Cary Tedder
Director-choreographer: Randy Skinner
Book & lyrics: George Haimsohn, Robin Miller
Music: Jim Wise
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designers: Ken Billington, Jason Kantrowitz
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick
Musical supervisor, vocal & dance arranger: Rob Berman
Presented by Infinity Theatre Company — Anna Roberts Ostroff & Alan Ostroff, Martin Platt, David Elliott, Patricia M. Roberts, Bert C. Roberts, Carl Berg, Louise H. Beard, Julie Boardman/Sarabeth Grossman, Douglas & Steven Maine, Chris & Dawn Ellis