Los Angeles Theater Review: DAMES AT SEA (Colony Theatre in Burbank)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on April 15, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

DAMES AT SEA: NOTES ON CAMP

When Dames at Sea opened in 1966 at the Caffe Cino, a small coffee house and performance space in New York City’s Greenwich Village that was at the heart of the early off-off Broadway movement, the show was a trifle—a campy lark into the backstage musicals of early talkies, seen through a lens one imagines might have been happily clouded by smoke of an illegal variety. Was the show funny? Or was everything funny because the audience was high? In the beginning it was a 50-minute extended sketch. It grew to two acts, sixteen musical numbers, and larger productions internationally—and most importantly to musical theater aficionados, it launched Bernadette Peters to early fame.

The idea was to lampoon the likes of the Busby Berkeley-choreographed 42nd Street, which starred Ruby Keeler, who, along with being Al Jolson’s wife, was rather famously, a reverse of the triple threat: She couldn’t sing, dance, or act. Her popularity can be hard to wrap your head around today. There are musical stars of the 1930s that still leap off the screen and connect with modern audiences (Judy Garland and Fred Astaire come to mind) but Keeler was evidently of her moment, as incomprehensible to me as the popularity of Britney Spears will likely be to some future generation.

The writers of Dames at Sea, George Haimsohn, Jim Wise, and Robin Miller were inspired by Berkeley and Keeler. The leading lady of Dames at Sea is named Ruby. The dances don’t really try to achieve Berkeley’s precision kaleidoscope effects—impossible with a cast of six—but the various attempts, involving twirled umbrellas, swinging mops, shadow projections, flags, and confetti, are sweet and silly.

Los Angeles Theater Review: DAMES AT SEA (Colony Theatre in Burbank) - director Todd NielsenThe story isn’t so much homage, as a cut-and-paste job from a half dozen Warner Bros. musicals: A Broadway show called Dames at Sea is in rehearsal. The show within a show stars the temperamental Mona Kent; plus, there’s a wise-cracking chorus girl named Joan, an anxious producer named Hennesey, and a new arrival: Ruby, who is just off the bus from Utah with nothing but tap shoes in her suitcase and a prayer in her heart. She gets her big break in a Broadway chorus several minutes after hitting town but then faints—into the arms of sailor and aspiring Broadway tunesmith Dick, whose fellow Seabee swabbee Lucky soon shows up as well.

At the end of the first act the show can’t go on because the theater is being torn down. The second act takes us to Dick and Lucky’s ship, where the show will most certainly go on if Mona has anything to say about it. She pitches woo with the captain so he’ll give the show the go ahead, and there’s a romantic subplot with Mona falling for Dick and trying to keep him away from Ruby—while putting his songs in the show and making him famous. Joan and Lucky fall in love, Dick and Ruby struggle through minor misunderstandings and find bliss, and the captain gives Mona an engagement rock the size of a jawbreaker. Oh, and along the way, Mona gets seasick and Ruby has to go out there a chorus girl and come back a star.

I’ve never seen the show before, so I was eager to attend the opening of the Colony Theatre Company’s new production of Dames at Sea in Burbank. On paper, no one could be a more receptive audience than I. Never mind that I am a musical theater aficionado, I am also a Bernadette Peters aficionado (full disclosure: she starred in a movie I wrote in 2002), and I am an aficionado of the period—I have seen all the movies that inspired the show, and I have written about the era as well.

Yet I found myself rather bored.

Los Angeles Theater Review: DAMES AT SEA (Colony Theatre in Burbank) - director Todd NielsenAt first I thought it must be the production itself. The negatives are an over-bright color palette that gives the show the look and feel of an old Carol Burnett Show sketch; A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s dreadful costumes—poorly constructed and uniformly unflattering; and wigs by Joni Rudesill that are as ugly as they are often quite wrong for the period; maybe it was a cost-cutting measure, but Stephen Gifford’s set not only looked cheap, but actually wobbled at times; and Drew Dalzell’s sound design sometimes muffles the singing. The Colony is a small enough house, so I don’t know why we must always be denied the pleasure of hearing live voices in live theater. And the voices here are quite lovely—which is definitely a very big plus—backed up by a smoking hot Dean Mora on piano.

There are a lot of positives in this production: Lisa Hopkins choreographs some great tap numbers, and director Todd Nielsen keeps things flowing smoothly. His production has also been cast with evident, great care. There is not one weak link. Heather Ayers, who brings to mind Joanna Lumley in certain angles, is tough and sly as Mona. She does a joke with her tongue on saying the word “ensemble” that brings down the house, and her physical schtick, doing backstrokes up the piano in “That Mister Man of Mine,” is brilliant. Eighteen year-old Tessa Grady is shockingly good as Ruby; she has the deadpan rhythm down pat, and when she looks up with her huge, liquid eyes, gasping in surprise at her own thoughts, she is genuinely entrancing. You really do feel like a star is being born right in front of your eyes. In the Joan Blondell role, Shanon Mari Mills is a pint-sized firecracker.

Los Angeles Theater Review: DAMES AT SEA (Colony Theatre in Burbank) - director Todd NielsenOn the male side of the equation, things are in equally fine shape. Jeffrey Scott Parsons and Justin Michael Wilcox as Dick and Lucky embody the archetypes of the leading man and his slightly more down-market pal. They dance effortlessly and both innately understand how to do this kind of thing with a mostly straight face and just enough of a wink to keep things interesting. In the dual role of the producer and the ship captain, Dink O’Neal is perfect. With a name like that, he’d better be—since it could well be the name of a character in just about every backstage musical ever made. He has a great hang-dog expression and lightning fast timing.

I think the real problem with Dames at Sea is the material itself. The enterprise feels like paraphrasing rather than parody. The songs are referential (and reverential) to the Warner Bros. musicals without actually being funny or imaginative. You get “The Echo Waltz” instead of “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933, and Mona’s “Wall Street” is an amalgam of the title song from 42nd Street and “We’re in the Money” from Gold Diggers, while “Choo-Choo Honeymoon” is a blend of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from 42nd Street and “Honeymoon Hotel” from Footlight Parade. But none of the songs adds anything to the mix. You get the glow of recognition, but nothing clever beyond that. What did the writers actually think about the material they were inspired by? I haven’t a clue. There is none of the gorgeous specificity and skill that makes a show like The Drowsy Chaperone soar so brilliantly beyond pastiche into its own kind of greatness. Even The Boy Friend packs a bigger punch.

Los Angeles Theater Review: DAMES AT SEA (Colony Theatre in Burbank) - director Todd NielsenThis is all very disappointing to me—especially after reading the writers’ bios in the playbill. All three are gone now, but they certainly Lived Large in their day. Robin Miller and Jim Wise both had fascinating stories, but the one that giddily captures my imagination is George Haimsohn. After serving in the Navy during WWII, he graduated from U.C. Berkeley, then moved to the Village in New York, where he became a poet; then he was a professional photographer; he designed mobiles and collages; he published stories, wrote advertising copy and limericks, and best of all, he had two pseudonyms: under the name of “Plato” he was a “male physique” photography pioneer, and as “Alexander Goodman” he wrote gay pornographic fiction.

I wish the material could be even half as…vivid.

photos by Michael Lamont

Dames at Sea
The Colony Theatre in Burbank (Los Angeles Theater)
through May 13
for tickets, visit http://www.colonytheatre.org

{ 1 comment }

ann doskow April 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm

I agree – it was disappointing. Though the cast was dandy, the music was absurdly trite and repititious. (They say that Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote only one tune, but at least it was a lovely tune, unlike this cliche material.)

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