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Kathleen White and Andy Meyers
in Dames at Sea
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Dames at Sea was written in the '60s, when camp had begun to flourish and the folks who made stage musicals were more inclined to spoof old movies than regard them as tested product for straightforward adaptation. Times have changed. So much so that the Busby Berkeley sillinesses that Dames at Sea spoofmeisters George Haimsohn, Robin Miller, and Jim Wise poke good fun at are again considered entertainments to be taken at face value rather than antiquities to be regarded with amused scorn. The proof? 42nd Street, transferred to the stage in 1980 and based on one of the celluloid Dames at Sea targets, is back on Broadway and remains glorious to behold.

The story that kidders Haimsohn, Miller, and Wise tell of just-off-the-bus showbiz hopeful Ruby rocketing to stardom in one fast-paced day is ridiculous in just the right way -- and the trio's pastiche songs, inserted what seems like every three minutes or so, are also right on money. Ruby, named for Warner Brothers' heavy-footed Ruby Keeler, falls in love with hometown boy Dick, named for Dick Powell. This happens as Dick not only goes from wide-eyed swabby to celebrated Broadway composer in the same lickety-split time span but also has the moves put on him by Great White Way diva Mona Kent. Also on hand are the good-natured Joan, named for Joan Blondell, and Lucky, who represents every sidekick that ever sang and/or tapped alongside a leading man, plus the driven musical spectacle director Hennesey and an amorous ship's captain (both roles intended to be played by the same actor).

Dames at Sea gets many of its laughs by reducing its models to their giddy essentials. Shrewdly constructed as it is, the show can still make waves of hilarity if it lands in the right hands. (It was certainly in the right hands and fleet feet when Bernadette Peters, Sally Stark, Joe Sicari, and others played it for yuks and for keeps back in the day.) But in the wrong hands, watch out! The Jean Cocteau Repertory, hunkered down in the Bouwerie Lane Theatre where the original production tarried for a time, Dames at Sea has done very badly by the property.

No one connected with this revival seems to have noticed that the effortless-seeming end-product that Dames at Sea must be to click demands style and charm. More than that, the piece calls for an understanding of '30s movie conventions as a foundation on which to build satire. In other words, actors and their director -- here, it's David Fuller -- have to bring a highly developed sense of contemporary style to their send-up of a dated style. When Ruby (Kathleen White) decides to quit her newly landed chorus gig and return to Utah, Joan (Chrysten Peddie) reminds the disillusioned youngster of "your talent, your great talent." The clichéd speech, only one of many '30s clichés exploited here, needs an exaggerated comic spin, but rarely do these players and their colleagues understand the magic of the spin they're in.

Judith Jarosz and Campbell Bridges in Dames at Sea
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
True, for the properly drippy "It's Raining in My Heart" number, choreographer Barbara Brandt has outfitted the cast with see-through plastic umbrellas that conjure Busby Berkeley's still-astonishing optical illusions. Berkeley, a true visionary, invented a certain kind of monumental film kitsch, and Brandt cleverly suggests it here -- but this is just about the only sequence in which any of the participants ring a resonant bell. They don't when Ruby and Dick (Andy Meyers) sing "There's Something About You" and, going into his dance, Meyers lifts White as if she's excess cargo. The "Singapore Sue" number, which is Keeler's "Shanghai Lil" turned inside out, is just stage clutter. Singling out any of the performers for especially painful singing would be pointless, since the screeching and flatting is rife. (Well, okay: Campbell Bridges as the martinet Hennesey and the blustering Captain is a particularly offensive screecher, whether singing or speaking.) With all the hypersonic wailing that goes on, it's a wonder that homeless Bowery dogs aren't fetching up nightly outside the theater's front doors.

The direction of Fuller, the Cocteau's producing artistic director, lacks imagination. Fuller does instill give this Dames with some pace -- and, if nothing else, the actors keep up. Kathleen White, who from some angles resembles Alice Faye, does wistful guilelessness well enough as Ruby. Andy Meyers is a grown Gerber baby as the innocent Dick; more Powell to him! Ann Miller look-alike Chrysten Peddie (not to be confused with Christine Pedi) as Joan and Joey Stocks as Lucky have energy. Judith Jarosz as the marauding Mona and Campbell Briggs in his two roles put a good deal of elbow grease into their assignments, but to little avail. I'm tempted to say the result of the cast's striving is about equal to a community theater production, but I've recently seen some community theater productions that were better than this. Set designer Roman Tatarowicz, lighting designer Giles Hogya, and costumer Joanna Haas appear to be working on a community theater budget, but they make the most of it.

Dames at Sea is such a sly piece of work that it even has a joke built into its title. It's sad to report that the Jean Cocteau Repertory, where significant internal changes have recently been churning the waters, is at sea in ways that the tuner's creators never intended.

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