“Dames at Sea” revives and spoofs a stage tradition of ignoring war
The type of “moon-June-spoon” musical that “Dames at Sea” gently and affectionately lampoons has not been mainstream entertainment for decades. In fact, the vast majority of contemporary theatergoers only know such films as “Follow the Fleet” from TV and such musicals as “Anything Goes,” or “On the Town” from revivals. These shows that had at their core the premise that no crisis is so big it can’t be tap-danced away, have always been quaint and arcane in our lifetimes, a reality that makes even the most loving satire too distant to be sharply pointed.
Or does it? Watching the thoroughly adorable, if at moments uneven, revival of “Dames at Sea” at the Jean Cocteau, it suddenly seemed to have a darker cast—one that probably hasn’t been that evident through countless stock productions during the past 35 years. (This is the show’s first “real” New York revival since its 1968 launch that introduced us to Bernadette Peters.) At the end of the first act, the very moment that everything is going to hell and the theater is being bulldozed, the entire company is defiantly singing “Good Times are Here to Stay,” and tapping away with a kind of frenzied pep and frozen smiles, right up until the moment that the building would fall on their heads. Just before they are crushed, they beat a hasty retreat to the exit, leaving whoever is left to clean up the mess they don’t want to be bothered with.
With the exception that the metaphoric bulldozer hasn’t arrived quite yet, this could be U.S. foreign policy in a nutshell. All we needed was a balloon drop and confetti cannons to feel like we were right back at the final night of the Republican convention.
Director David Fuller has filled his production with such subtle touches, which make the show seem intriguingly contemporary, and far from the saccharine and serious treatments this chestnut usually receives, he’s restored the true Off-Broadway spirit that used the establishment’s own forms to tweak its foibles. First staged during the Vietnam War era, the musical seems more relevant than ever as it takes precise aim at the sunny outlook
that comes from near-psychotic denial of reality.
The story takes place in one day and follows the fortunes of Ruby, who gets off the bus from Utah and heads to a Broadway theater where she gets a part in the chorus because one of the girls quit. She falls in love, instantly of course, with the sailor who followed her with the suitcase she left on the bus. The sailor, Dick, happens to be a songwriter, and soon finds that he’s written the show for big-time musical star Mona Kent. Meanwhile hard-boiled Broadway vet Joan is reunited with her on-again-off-again beau Lucky, who just happens to be a pal of Dick’s. Things look pretty good, till the theater is destroyed, but they decide to move the show to the deck of a battleship, whose captain just happens to be an old flame of Mona’s. The show’s a hit and ends with three weddings. The score is all charming pastiche songs that poke fun at the entire canon of musical comedy songs from torch songs to novelties to big production numbers—and even one that tweaks the suppressed homoeroticism of navy life, the title song “Dames at Sea.”
The cast does a great job. They work well together, and in particular the production number “Raining in My Heart” is sweet and stops the show. Individually, Kathleen White as Ruby is deliciously comic, with expressions and physical comedies that recall Lucille Ball. She has an occasional dazed look that’s not so much self-conscious commentary on the plot as the real confusion of a young woman whose life is suddenly spinning out of control.
Chrysten Peddie as Joan has the tough dame attitude down cold. She’s got a warm presence, is a great dancer and has a strong voice. It’s a performance that reminds you of Ann Miller, especially when she turns up the brass, and that’s no accident. Peddie is a fine performer we should see more of. Andy Meyers is charming as Dick, and often very funny. The part is a little low for his voice, but when he nails it, he’s great. Joey Stocks as Lucky plays the classic second banana to Peddie’s Joan with tremendous good humor. The stock version of this character needs to be rough around the edges but still nice enough to take home to mom. As Mona Kent, Judith Jarosz plays the Margaret Dumont or Marie Dressler of the piece—the big, blowzy star who overpowers everyone around her through sheer force of personality. She’s terrific at it. Campbell Bridges does a fine job with the roles of Hennesey and the Captain.
The sets by Roman Tatarowicz and the choreography by Barbara Brandt are perfect for the tiny stage of the Bouwerie Lane theater, and it’s wonderful to see the revival of both the show and the mischievous spirit of political satire that originally inspired it.