Dames at Sea Sails Off

Dames at Sea cast, photo by Jeremy Daniel
From a financial standpoint the revival of Dames at Sea at the Helen Hayes Theater was an unmitigated disaster. The show opened in October to lukewarm reviews and sold poorly even in the 597-seat theater. This 1968 musical originally gained fame when a certain Bernadette Peters played Ruby and then shot to stardom herself, which echoed Ruby's storyline. But in the current revival it was unable to gain any traction, and today it played its final show, which I attended. At least the show got a good send-off -- the theater cheered loudly after every number.

Personally I thought it was an absolutely lovely, charming little show that should have done much better at the box office. The fact that it closed almost as soon as it opened says more about the blockbuster-or-bust mentality on Broadway rather than the quality of the show. Director and choreographer Randy Skinner treats the show with obvious affection. The opening, which was played with a movie-style projector and black and white credits rolling, immediately set the mood for this deliberately nostalgic stroll into 1930's Hollywood. Yes the jokes are rather corny but this affectionate parody/tribute to golden age style musicals was always entertaining, and had absolutely great tap dancing by the six-person cast. Musical theater nerds can hear how many of the George Haimsohn's songs and Robin Miller lyrics are derivatives of some classics -- the opening number "Wall Street" sounds exactly like "42nd Street" and "That Mister Man of Mine" has more than a passing resemblance to Gershwin's "The Man I Love. Novices can just enjoy the upbeat song-and-tap routines including the wonderful production number "Star Tar" where Ruby finally gets to show off her tap-dancing chops.

One of the best parts of Dames at Sea is the gentle parody of the "exotic numbers" that used to be par for course in these musicals. "Singapore Sue" is a little cringe-worthy with all the Asian stereotypes but "The Echo Waltz" is an ingenious send-up of "The Shadow Waltz," that famous moment in The Gold Diggers when a group of showgirls does a Viennese waltz down the stairs, violins and all.

Echo Waltz, photo by Sara Krulwich

In fact, many of the song-and-dance numbers are so good on their own that you don't need to know anything about Busby Berkeley musicals to enjoy Dames at Sea. Most people will recognize the show-business tropes like Ruby (a spunky Eloise Kropp) who just got off the bus from Utah and voila! finds herself backstage at a musical, or sailors who magically are also great songwriters and tap dancers (Cary Tedder as Dick and Danny Gardner at Lucky were fabulous), or Joan, the tough-talking showgirl with a heart of gold (Mara Davi, probably the stand-out in the cast), or the aging prima diva Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita), or Hennesey (John Bolton, who also doubled as Captain Courageous), whose struggling Broadway theater has produced "twelve flops" and has to close.

I left the theater with the same irrepressible hope of Ruby/Hennesey/Dick/Joan/Lucky/Mona that Dames at Sea can eventually find an off-Broadway home, where it probably belongs and where it'd be more appreciated. Bon voyage!

Here's a brief video I took of the curtain calls:


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