Dames at Sea
Come and meet those dancing feet over at the Helen Hayes Theatre, where a tap-tastic revival of Jim Wise, George Haimsohn, and Robin Miller's backstage-spoof musical Dames at Sea has sailed into port. A small-scale riff on the big 1930s Busby Berkeley films (namely 42nd Street), this silly little show is only now receiving its Broadway premiere, 49 years after first being presented off-off-Broadway at the legendary Caffe Cino. For lovers of the genre, Dames at Sea is a delightful romp that doesn't feel like it's aged a day since 1966.
As the story begins, young chorine Ruby (Eloise Kropp) gets off the bus from Utah and marches straight to a Broadway theater to land a spot in the ensemble of a new musical. She impresses both Hennesey (John Bolton), the harried director prone to fits of rage, and Joan (Mara Davi), a fellow hoofer who's always quick with a quip. Less charmed is Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita), the temperamental diva whose name on the marquee better be in a larger font than the show's title, or else.
Ruby was so excited to be in the Big Apple that she forgot her suitcase, and a handsome young sailor named Dick (Cary Tedder) follows her all the way through the stage door to give it back to her. Naturally it's love at first sight, but complications ensue as Mona discovers Dick's secret talent as a tunesmith and tries to steal him for herself. But that's not the worst thing set to happen. Hours before the curtain goes up on the production that's supposed to save Hennesey's career, a wrecking ball razes the theater. But the show must go on, and it's up to our lovable heroes (a group completed by Danny Gardner as Lucky, Joan's sailor boyfriend), to find an appropriate new venue.
Director and choreographer Randy Skinner brings the material to life as if it exploded out of an old movie. As the overture plays, we're treated to a projected reel of black-and-white opening credits, a unique and charming touch that instantly sets the tone. The rest of the show is in glorious Technicolor, with extravagant costumes by David C. Woolard, multiple munificent and fetching sets by Anna Louizos, and bright, razzmatazz-filled lighting by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz.
All six stars are triple threats, delivering Skinner's extremely difficult dance moves with only minimal sweat. Kropp, in particular, is one of the most skilled tappers Broadway has seen in years. However, she's been directed to play Ruby with too much earnestness. Considering the character is a stereotyped version of the chorus girl with no experience who quickly hits the big time, much of the kitschy humor in the writing is lost in this sincerity.
In the dance department, Gardner and Tedder thrill audiences with their astonishing acrobatic feats during the show's title song. The whimsically exaggerated Davi, the rubber-limbed Bolton, and the deliciously vampy Margherita produce gale-force winds of laughter through their wide-eyed winks at the audience, which hit all of the right notes. Margherita has one moment toward the end of the first act that is so magnificently funny you'll be chortling for days later.
Overall, Skinner's choreography is significantly stronger than his directorial hand. His fancy footwork for the 2001 revival of 42nd Street is still a cherished memory in the minds of many theatergoers, and one leaves Dames at Sea feeling a similar level of thrill. Those who regularly get goosebumps when they hear a tap shoe hit a Masonite floor will be on cloud nine for hours after the curtain comes down.