Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Star is Born (But Not Who You Think)

Review: Dames at Sea

Eloise Kropp (center) and the tap-happy cast of Dames at Sea

The beautiful contradiction of Dames at Sea is that it is a send-up of the lavish, large scale Busby Berkeley movie musicals of the 1930s performed by just 6 actors. Conceived for a tiny Off-Off-Broadway space, the original production made a star of Bernadette Peters, and since its premiere over 40 years ago the show has been produced by countless high school, amateur, and regional theatre companies. Now this delightful piece of tomfoolery has docked on the (comparatively) big stage of the Helen Hayes Theatre for its Broadway debut, in a first rate production that has been suitably jazzed up for contemporary audiences without losing any of the show's beguiling old school charms.

The plot is paper thin and purposefully ridiculous, spoofing the "a star is born" stories so commonly seen in backstage musicals. Ruby is the sweet, innocent girl fresh off the bus from Utah who has come to New York dreaming of making it big. She is instantly cast as a replacement dancer in big time star Mona Kent's next Broadway vehicle, and while the outsized diva isn't exactly happy about her newfound competition, she does fancy Dick, a talented songwriting sailor and Ruby's one true love. When the cast learns their theatre is set to be demolished that very day, they concoct a plan to premiere their show on Dick's naval ship, but will they be able to pull everything together in time???

Of course they will. There's never any doubt about how things will work out, as the whole point of Dames at Sea is to lovingly mock the fact that we have seen this story many, many times before. With Dames it is all about the journey rather than the destination, and in this case said journey is filled with jaunty throwback numbers, delightfully kooky characters, and some of the most elaborate 6 person tap routines imaginable. Director/choreographer Randy Skinner stages the expanded dance sequences with an expert eye and incredibly versatile tap vocabulary, giving solos and duets the same amount of smile-inducing razzle dazzle most directors need an entire chorus to conjure. Skinner also has an excellent handle on the show's over the top but completely earnest tone, keeping things moving along at such a breezy pace that everything feels fresh despite the abundance of dated period references.

Skinner's hard working, eminently likable cast handles this deceptively tricky balancing act with ease, and with one slight but notable exception they are all outstanding. That exception would be the doe-eyed and sweet-voiced Eloise Kropp as Ruby, who unfortunately is not the breakout star that by all accounts Peters was in the original. Kropp admirably anchors the show with her sincere naivety while still tapping up a storm, but misses a lot of the farcical comedy lurking just beneath the script's surface. If Kropp doesn't take full advantage of the comedic opportunities presented by the material, it is still difficult to dislike someone so winsomely earnest, and Kropp is by no means bad; she is simply not ideal.

The one benefit of having a slightly underwhelming Ruby is that absolutely nothing distracts from the pitch perfect comic shenanigans of Lesli Margherita as Mona. Margherita chews all of the scenery, spits it out, and chews it again in a deliriously campy performance that is Norma Desmond by way of Ethel Merman. The show gives Margherita permission to go as far as she wants with Mona's over the top antics, something the brassy comedienne commits to with complete gutso. She dances like a dream and belts to the rafters, turning the parody torch song "The Mister Man of Mine" into a roof rattling showstopper that is the evening's clear high point. This Dames belongs to Margherita, who will hopefully be gracing our stages for many, many years to come.

The rest of the cast also does fine work, with Mara Davi providing a particularly strong take on sexy yet classy chorus girl Joan. Cary Tedder embodies the young leading man stereotype with ease, and as fellow sailor Lucky, Danny Gardner makes an excellent Donald O'Connor-type to Tedder's Gene Kelly-esque Dick. John Bolton hams it up in the dual roles of show producer Hennesey and the naval Captain, knowing just when to steal focus and when to defer to his castmates' talents. All of the actors look great in David C. Woolard's candy colored costumes and on Anna Louizos' simple but effective set, which is beautifully lit by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz.

Dames at Sea is the perfect antidote to the sometimes overblown spectacle of contemporary Broadway, a loving homage to a simpler time when a catchy tune and a well executed dance routine were all that an audience required. Thanks to strong direction by Skinner and a smart choice of theatre, the show has been suitably upsized for the big leagues without losing the small scale charm that makes it work in the first place. Strong performances all around and a truly exceptional star turn by Lesli Margherita make this a maritime journey worth taking, as these Dames are the real deal.

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