Some rumblings in the Broadway community prior to Dames At Sea’s official opening tonight at the Helen Hayes Theatre questioned why producers would bother to sink so much money into a commercial endeavor for a tiny show that at first glance seems neither relevant nor big enough to fill a Broadway stage. The answer: director and choreographer Randy Skinner.
Skinner is best known for choreographing the 2001 revival of 42nd Street, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, along with a few period pieces including Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and State Fair. In the interim, Kathleen Marshall has become the grand dame of revivals that showcase the Golden Age of musical theater. Well, move over Marshall. As Skinner proves in this ebullient production, there’s room for two in Broadway’s tap-dancing playground.
Originally presented off-off Broadway in 1966, the show reopened at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre and had a successful off Broadway run along with a regional production at Paper Mill Playouse. At its center was a fresh-faced Bernadette Peters in the title role or Ruby, a young dancer that has just arrived from Utah to make her big break on Broadway.
George Haimsohn, Robin Miller (book and lyrics), and Jim Wise (music) were inspired by the mega musicals of the 1930s and created a parody with a tiny cast (six actors) and a big heart that won audiences over during an era where escapism from the Vietnam War was welcome. Nearly 50 years later, a different kind of respite can be appreciated on Broadway—one where a girl relying on a pair of red tap shoes to fulfill her dreams is enough to satiate an audience.
Skinner has assembled a first-rate cast, as evident by an explosive opening number, “Wall Street,” featuring Lesli Margherita as Mona Kent, the diva who rules the roost. Ruby (Eloise Kropp) arrives just in time to fulfill the vacancy of a wayward chorus girl thanks to the recommendation of fellow chorine Joan (Mara Davi). Dick the sailor (Cary Tedder)—yes, there are enough name references for an eye roll or two—stumbles into the theatre and falls instantly in love with Ruby, while his shipmate Lucky (Danny Gardner) isn’t far behind to rekindle his romance with Joan. Keeping a lid on the antics is the catch-all producer Hennesy (John Bolton). All seems to be going well until it’s revealed that the theatre is about to be torn down, so the troupe gathers the sets and costumes and heads to the battleship to stage the show within the show for Act II.
The thin plot is enough to provide a framework for the vintage score. While not necessarily memorable, it provides plenty of references to the American Songbook and the works of George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein—as do the performances, which are joyfully stylized while still playing the stakes at hand. Leading the scene stealing is Oliver Award-winning (Zorro The Musical) Margherita, whose triumphant Mona delivers an 11 o’clock number at about 8:30 with “That Mister Man of Mine.”
The rest of the company is equally vibrant. Kropp is a wide-eyed Ruby, and while some might miss Peters’ unique vocal quality on her solos, Kropp is a powerhouse tapper. As her newfound love interest, Tedder is sweet-natured and endearing. Gardner’s Lucky provides the perfect goofball counterpart while Davi musters up triple-threat virtuoso. And in the double cast role of Hennesey and the Captain, Broadway veteran John Bolton delivers a splash of endearing Paul Lynde panache that never overshadows his musical capabilities.
Dames At Sea proves that bigger (and newer) isn’t always better. This charming little show is a star bright enough to outshine some of its flashier neighbors on the Great White Way.
Dames At Sea
Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street, NYC
Open ended run.
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @roodeloo.