Los Angeles Theater Review: DAMES AT SEA (Sierra Madre Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on July 2, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A DAMES

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. In the beginning it was a 50-minute extended sketch. While it always retained six roles, it grew to two acts, fourteen musical numbers, and most importantly to musical theater aficionados, it launched a teenage Bernadette Peters to early fame. Its second-rate nostalgia and small production values mean productions won’t be stopping anytime soon.

Now, Sierra Madre Playhouse delivers the fluff big-time with Jeffrey Scott Parson’s great tap numbers, and director Joshua Finkel’s smooth direction. Out of the six performers, five are adorable but one is a star. Sure, it’s diverting, but don’t expect comic timing par excellence from anyone but Jennifer Knox as a demanding Broadway diva. Here, it’s all about wide-eyed glorious enthusiasm and swanky tap, which is delivered in full force.

The 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.

The idea was to lampoon the likes of the Busby Berkeley-choreographed 42nd Street, which starred Ruby Keeler, who was Al Jolson’s wife. The writers of Dames at Sea, George Haimsohn and Robin Miller (book and lyrics)and Jim Wise (music) were inspired by Berkeley and Keeler. The leading lady is even 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 and swinging mops are sweet and silly.

Jennifer Knox is tough and sly as Mona. This triple-threat owns physical schtick as if she was born in a Catskills summer camp, she belts to the rafters of theaters miles from Sierra Madre, and dances with a remarkable effortlessness. Katie Franqueira is a shockingly good tapper 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. Marissa Mayer is entirely likeable as Joan, but the role requires an Eve Arden to make those barbs fly.

A a golly-gee-gosh gusher, Aaron Shaw, and a pint-sized firecracker, Ruben Bravo, embody the archetypes of the leading man Dick and his slightly more down-market pal Lucky. In the dual role of the producer and the ship captain, Chuck McLane is strong-voiced, but a bit loud and manic. The songs are referential (and reverential) to the Warner Bros. musicals without actually being very funny or imaginative (the lyrics can be downright trite) but the voices here are quite lovely, which is definitely a very big plus, backed up by a smoking hot Sean Paxton on piano.

Since the show has already been extended, you know that audiences are happy with the production, even as the wafer-thin shenanigans may leave some at sea.

photos by Gina Long

Dames at Sea
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30; Sat at 2:30 (August 3 only)
ends on July 21, 2018
EXTENDED to August 3, 2019
for tickets, call 626.355.4318 or visit Sierra Madre Playhouse

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