‘Dames at Sea’ hits the deck at North Coast RepTop Highlights, Entertainment Feature Thursday, July 26th, 2012
An all-tapping, all-singing, all-Hollywood USA show has audiences jumping to their feet at the North Coast Rep. Just in time for the summer holidays, Dames at Sea, originally subtitled, The New 1930s Musical, sports a hard-working cast of hoofers who boast brass pipes and a three-piece band that shakes the rafters.
The six-person show originated as a cabaret act at Cafe Cino (birthplace of America’s gay theatre movement) in 1966 as Dames at Sea, or Golddiggers Afloat. In 1968 the show set sail to Off-Broadway with a new title and an 18 year-old Bernadette Peters as Ruby, the wide-eyed ingénue from Utah ready to take on Broadway. The kid and the show made whoopee for 575 performances.
Hollywood’s musicals were salve for Americans during the devastating Great Depression. They spilled into splendiferous, at times surreal, musical sequences armed to the teeth in sequins. Even if unwitting, so was Dames to the Vietnam War era.
When Busby Berkeley musicals frequently ran in late-night “festivals” during the 1960s, more than a few of us queens smoked a joint, got the munchies and zoned out with an 11:30 p.m. movie. The films were cut from the typical 90 minutes to 50 minutes with 20 minutes of commercials. Little wonder that Dames runs like the 20th Century Limited on full throttle.
Arriving at a theater directly from the port authority, Ruby literally taps her way through a stage door and into a musical dress rehearsal of flop-prone producer, Hennesy. She meets a sailor named Dick who happens to be an aspiring songwriter and they fall for each other in eight bars of “It’s You.” OK, make that four bars.
With book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise, this jewel box of a show has the musical charm and clever rhyming that keeps apace with Cole Porter.
As “the Lady Macbeth of 42nd Street” who’s seen better days, Roxane Carrasco’s Mona is an over-the-top drag queen’s performance (she’s a real girl). Ms. Carrasco’s vocal prowess ranges from switched-on belt to faux operetta. Here’s a gal who can simultaneously sing, turn and spin atop a miniature piano.
True to the genre, each sock the plot aims at Ruby turns into good fortune in this delightfully predictable story. As Ruby, Sarah Errington never errs. She, thankfully, comes the closest to approaching a style that serves the creator’s fondness for pastiche. Her song styling of “Raining in My Heart” and “The Sailor of My Dreams” (a nod to “(Dear Mr. Gable) You Made Me Love You”) brings pure heartfelt sweetness to the show.
Numerous knowing references in Dames add extra fun for 1930s musical aficionados; Ruby mirrors Ruby Keeler, Dick shadows Dick Powell and Joan is a saucy facsimile of Joan Blondell. Side-kick Lucky, that models Jules Munshin, is a playful nudnik that relentlessly slings slang.
Dick (saccharine Jeffrey Scott Parsons) and Lucky (a forced Luke Jacobs) are the two footloose sailors on liberty chaisin’ sweet patootie. These two handsome Joes play well together but never ignite with the gals.
To classify the musical as camp would short-change its artistic value, yet there is a camp element to Dames. Camp is not solely a technical skill as this production mistakenly supposes. Camp surfaces as vainglorious tragedy as characters stalk their objects of desire fueled with fathomless emotions to comic effect.
The absurdity of emulating lavish production numbers with a handful of performers was born from the Greenwich Village’s mother of invention: The combination of passion for the genre and a tiny budget brought about Dames’s style that requires a precise balance in delicacy and nuance and counterbalanced with charm.
Helmer Rick Simas’s production dips deep into hackneyed sarcasm and tired schtick. Strung together luke-warm comic bits with tough tapping doesn’t inspire Dames’ loving ridiculousness. Choreographer Lisa Hopkins’s tap dances are rigorous but mostly miss the invention of applying over-blown ‘30s musicals’ panache to a small cast. While the actors let us know they’re working hard dancing, a sense of dance giving them genuine physical pleasure would prove more engaging.
Renetta Lloyd’s costume designs catch the period especially in “The Echo Waltz,” a vest-pocket follie. Set designer Marty Burnett turns in his usual flatly painted department store window set and the shadowy lighting design is by Matt Novotny.
If you are in the mood for a musical cruise, Dames at Sea, despite its faulty aesthetic compass, should still prove smooth sailing.
Extended through Aug. 5.
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