By Stanford Friedman
Deconstruct a Sam Peckinpah western for the stage and you get a tight piece of absurdism like Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. Deconstruct a Busby Berkeley movie musical and you have the loose two hours of light-heartedness that is Dames at Sea. In this spoof of old Broadway, which mostly parodies the Berkeley film, 42nd Street, a dedicated cast of six top notch hoofers fight the good fight; tapping, belting and mugging their way through a book that ranges from predictable to corny to borderline misogynistic. Tomatoes, here, are not the kind that grow on vines, but there’s a lot of squeezing going on nonetheless.
Having been produced Off-Broadway in 1968, and in community theaters and high school gymnasiums across the country ever since, this one hit wonder from the once only team of Haimsohn, Miller and Wise is now on Broadway at last. It arrives as an example of how dated material can still entertain when blessed with a cast and crew of talented professionals.
Things happen fast in Dames, and that, indeed, is the joke at the show’s heart. Can Ruby (Eloise Kropp), the girl from just off the bus, be cast in a Broadway chorus in a matter of minutes? But of course. Is there love at first sight in store? You betcha. Hey sailor, do you happen to have a battle ship where we can put on a show tonight because our theater is scheduled for demolition? All aboard.
In those old flicks of the 1930’s where the lovable understudy suddenly takes over for the injured leading lady, we rarely get to fully appreciate how talented that replaced star is to begin with. Not so here, with our diva, Mona Kent, played on full tilt by Lesli Margherita. A true triple threat, Margherita shows off a soaring voice that fills the intimate Helen Hayes Theatre, surprisingly nimble tap moves, and a well-tuned sense of zaniness, drawing laughs from Miller & Haimsohn’s thin dialog. She’s a hard villainess to hate. As Ruby, Kropp is nothing at all like Margherita, physically or vocally, but that won’t stop her from going out there a nobody and coming back a star. Any thoughts of her being miscast are swept away after witnessing her dynamite tap routine late in the second act. Ruby is befriended by know-it-all chorus gal Joan (Mara Davi) and the two are endlessly being wooed, groped or sung to by the handsome sailor boys Dick and Lucky (Cary Tedder and Danny Gardner). These two gents are fairly interchangeable, but Gardner at least gets to avoid the incessant Dick jokes that director/choreographer Randy Skinner apparently felt obliged to stress whenever possible. Skinner makes up for this sin by providing several marvelously entertaining dance routines including a sequence in the duet of “Choo-Choo Honeymoon” that finds Davi tapping while seated and Gardner clicking his heels against the side of an upright piano. Rounding out the cast is John Bolton, doubling up as both Hennesey, the harried stage director, and the ship’s lascivious Captain. Bolton has a demanding presence, but his best work comes off stage in some impossibly fast costume changes. Wise’s score is most often a syncopated soundtrack for rapid fire tap-tapping, but there are a few welcome breaks in the pace; notably, Ruby’s sweet ballad “Raining in My Heart,” and Mona’s “The Beguine,” which fires back at “Choo-Choo Honeymoon” with a racy bit of Cha-Cha-Cha.
Dames at Sea – Music by Jim Wise, Book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller; Directed by Randy Skinner.
WITH: John Bolton (The Captain/Hennesey), Mara Davi (Joan), Danny Gardner (Lucky), Eloise Kropp (Ruby), Lesli Margherita (Mona Kent) and Cary Tedder (Dick).
Choreography by Randy Skinner; Scenic design by Anna Louizos; Costume design by David C. Woolard; Lighting design by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz; Sound design by Scott Lehrer; Ira Mont, production stage manager. At the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., 1-800-432-7250, http://damesatseabroadway.com/. Running Time: 2 hours.