Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2008
Looking at Dames at Sea today, you think, “Why, this is just a poor man’s version of 42nd Street” The fact that director/choreographer Tralen Doler mounted a boffo production of the latter at the Cohoes Music Hall just last March really begs the comparison. But it is important to put Dames at Sea in its historical context.
The film of 42nd Street opened in 1933, but the Broadway musical version didn’t exist until 1980. That’s Entertainment, the documentary that revived interest in the film musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, wasn’t released until 1974. “Dames at Sea” was first presented in its current form off-Broadway in 1968. The Tony-nominated musicals that year were Hair, Promises, Promises, Zorba, and, the winner, 1776. (Dames at Sea was not a Tony contender because it was playing off-Broadway, not on.) Compared to those shows, it is clear how retro-revolutionary Dames at Sea was. Long-haired hippies were writhing around naked on stage in Hair and Oh, Calcutta! and here comes a 20-year-old nobody named Bernadette Peters in a pair of tap shoes.
Today there are no more over-used commodities in the American theatre than big tap numbers and Bernadette Peters, but contrast the music of Galt MacDermot and Burt Bacharach with Jim Wise’s score and George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s lyrics and you can see in an instant why Dames at Sea was a sensation. It didn’t look or sound like anything anyone else was doing at the time, and Bernadette Peters literally did go out there a chorus girl and come back a star.
What is most shocking about Dames at Sea today is its size. This is a tiny, little show with a cast of just six. When you hear “Dames at Sea” you envision wave after wave of tap dancing WAVEs, but all you get are three ladies – the ingénue, the soubrette, and the character woman. Same with the guys – no chorus of beefcake to keep the matinee ladies happy, just Our Hero, his stalwart Second Banana, and the character man.
Originally, that was the joke – a Busby Berkeley style musical with only six players on a teeny-weeny stage. But the Cohoes Music Hall stage ain’t that small, and for local audiences the Mac-Haydn Theatre has proven that it is perfectly possible to cram two dozen wildly tapping chorines onto a stage the size of an average bathroom. Here six actors and a non-existent Act I set just look, well, cheap.
Such a small cast requires judicious rotation of performers off and on stage so no one gets worn out, and as a result there are far more solos and duets than quartets or sextets. In fact, whenever all six actors appear on stage together, you are pretty much guaranteed a finale. After you have felt a dozen or so metal-plated toes and heels hammer out the beat at Cohoes, a mere pair or two of feet sound mighty sparse, although Doler has done his usual snappy job choreographing the show. Again, with a bigger cast you can break out the big flashy moves because you don’t have to worry about tiring your performers. Here you have the talent, but not the luxury of allowing them to really strut their stuff.
The plot is a happy conglomeration of every old movie musical cliché. A young woman named Ruby (Darcy Wright,) fresh off the bus from Centerville, Utah, walks into the dress rehearsal of a Broadway musical entitled Dames at Sea and announces that she wants to be a star. Joan (Rachael Lee), a hard-boiled but comely chorine, convinces the harried director, Hennessey (Jerry Christakos), to give her a shot. Having no money for food, Ruby faints into the arms of a passing sailor named Dick (Peter Stoffan) who immediately falls in love with her and proposes. Ruby accepts. Joan renews her romance with Lucky (Christian Donnelly) who happens to be Dick’s shipmate. Alas, the theatre is to be demolished and before the show can open the wrecking ball swings, but not before our resourceful crew has figured out that the boys’ Captain (also Christakos) is an old flame of the temperamental star of Dames at Sea, Miss Mona Kent (Monica M. Wemitt.)
Act II takes place aboard ship, where Mona convinces Captain Courageous, who she calls Cupcake, to let them stage the show on board. The next thing you know all of New York (including Elsa Maxwell) has rowed or sailed alongside to see the opening night. Ruby and Dick’s romance hits a few rocky shoals, but when Mona falls seasick (with a little help from Lucky) guess who gets to fill her shoes? Well, if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you!
Doler has assembled a talented and appealing cast, but they are just not quite big enough to fill the Hall. Wemitt with her larger-than-life stage presence and powerful voice comes the closest. Her attempts to vamp on top of the piano during her torch song take-off “That Mister Man of Mine” are hilarious. I don’t think I have ever seen her do so much tap dancing in a role, and she’s darned good.
It is a pleasure to see Jerry Christakos in character roles. He is usually the leading man which is often the least interesting role in the show. Here he looks like he is having fun being funny, and he hams it up beautifully with Wemitt on their Act II duet Beguine.
Lee and Donnelly are excellent Second Bananas (does anyone ever get to play the First Banana, or the Third??) Donnelly is limber and lively with long legs and saucer-like eyes. I found him consistently funny and an excellent dancer. Lee was also appealing and talented. Their Act I duet Choo-Choo Honeymoon– a clear and funny take-off on Shuffle Off to Buffalo – is delightful.
I said before that the leading man is often the least interesting character in a show, and Stoffan struggles a bit to make Dick (think Powell) more than a cardboard cut-out. It doesn’t help that Wright is no Bernadette Peters. Both performers are fine singers and dancers, but neither has real star quality.
I think heavier, 1930’s style make-up would have sent the audience a stronger message about the era and style of the show. The matinee crowd I attended with took everything very seriously, which I am sure annoyed the performers no end. There were many times that I laughed only to have those seated near me give me funny looks. I hope you get to sit with a livelier crowd!
Jen Price has designed a sweet mini-shipboard set for Act II, but Act I is performed entirely “in one,” a theatrical term meaning in front of the closed proscenium curtain, a device commonly used to cover a set change. Here it just looks like a lack of set entirely.
Khryn Diotte Rigney has done a fine job with the period costumes, especially for the bigger numbers in Act II. The lively pit band lead by Josh Zecher-Ross is great, and it is nice that the amplification used for Beehive has gone away again. I still like Cohoes best as an acoustic house.
Who could have foreseen, when C-R Productions announced their sixth season last February, how extra hilarious and ironically apros po it would be in October to stage a show set in the Great Depression which opens with a hymn to Wall Street? Wise, Haimsohn, and Miller modeled their pastiche after the Golddigger films of the 1930’s (it originally bore the subtitle Golddiggers Afloat), but even marrying a billionaire is no assurance of financial stability today. Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Bernadette Peters, can tap and twinkle and swoon all they like, but they’re safer keeping their money in the mattress than luring any number of top-hat-wearing swells to romp on it.
Dames at Sea, presented by C-R Productions, runs through November 2 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances are scheduled for Thursday-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is good fun for the whole family. Tickets range from $23 to $32. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008