Dames at Sea
George Haimsohn & Robin Miller (Book & Lyrics); Jim Wise (Music)
|The Cast of Dames at Sea|
While parodies sometimes aim to make fun to the point that the satire digs deep and hurts, a parody can also be a love letter where laughs are fond remembrances of the original -- beauty marks, warts, and all. Such is the case for the 1968 Off-Broadway (and later, 2015 Broadway) musical, Dames at Sea – a big-tongue-in-cheek, eyes-twinkling-in-full-delight spin-off of the many 1930 musical extravaganzas of choreographer/director, Busby Berkeley. George Haimsohn and Robin Miller have created a story about a small-town girl arriving one morning with tattered suitcase on the Great White Way and becoming a talk-of-the-town (and in this case, also of the sea) star by nightfall – becoming as well, of course, a bride. Their lyrics and the music of Jim Wise cleverly mimic and echo well-known numbers from some of those most famous, Busby Berkeley films, with just enough similar words and notes that one keeps asking self, “Isn’t that the ‘30s song from ...?”
In a year where a number of theatre companies are placing well-done, well-received staged gifts under the Bay Area’s musical, holiday tree, 42nd Street Moon adds a beautifully packaged parody with a Dames at Sea brimming with scenes that elicit laughs galore, with voices that soar and sizzle, and with dance numbers that recall numbers that once filled the silver screens of a bygone era. And while the film musicals being imitated often had casts of hundreds with full orchestras on multi-leveled stages, the fun of 42nd Street’s poke-in-the-ribs is that there are only six in this cast, two grand pianos as the orchestra, and a stage barely large enough for the ferocious toe-tapping, high-step kicking, and twirling bodies it is asked to accommodate.
As our story opens, a troupe on Broadway’s 42nd Street is about to premiere its new show – called none other than Dames at Sea – starring its mezzo-soprano diva, Mona Kent. We meet her in sparkling silver tails, top hat, and bow tie as she is practicing her big number, “Wall Street.” Mona (Ashley Cowl) immediately gives us a glimpse of what we will later see much more: a big voice with ability to belt even bigger, the overdone emotions and exaggerated everything of a true Drama Queen, and an ability to tap at speeds that should be against the law. Add ruby red lips that work with her perfectly puffed cheeks to leave big impressions along with fluttering, black eye lashes that almost brush against those sitting on the front row; and we have a Mona Kent who will show us a bigger-than-life satire of everything we remember and love about big stars like Busby’s Carman Miranda, Ginger Rogers, and Judy Garland.
|Jeffrey Scott Parson & Lauren Meyer|
Arriving from Centerville, Utah with nothing but a red pair of glittering shoes (sound familiar?) is who else but a red-haired girl named Ruby (a beautifully voiced Lauren Meyer with just the required amount of gingham-cotton innocence). When she faints from the long trip’s bus-ride hunger into the arms of a sailor named Dick, their rendition of “It’s You” is a hilarious, love-at-first-sight spoof of all such starry-eyed, movie meetings. As they soft shoe with ever-more exaggerated facials and body moves, their lips come ever so close to that first kiss but never quite touch. When Dick asks Ruby where she is from and he answers, “You, too” to her “Utah,” we know that we are in for two hours of silly puns and clichés ... and we are more than ready for the ride.
Jeffrey Scott Parson plays the aspiring songwriter, Dick, who is now serving in Uncle Sam’s Navy. With starry eyes that turn to grinning slits every times he offers us one of his contagious smiles, he sings with pop, zing, and zest about finding his “Broadway Baby.” While crooning over meeting Ruby, he leaves us in stitches pretending to play a piano that suddenly appears, using any number of his body parts to pound the keys.
His instantaneously conceived song (along with his glowing cuteness) attracts a watching Mona. With full flair and fling, she plops her high-hemline, leg-showing self onto Dick’s piano (and as much on Dick as she can) to sing a vocally reverberating, physically seductive “That Mister Man of Mine.” She has designs on Dick -- his music and his body – that suddenly shatter the five-minute-old dreams of matrimony that the sideline-watching Ruby already has built for herself.
Love is also in the air for Dick’s sailor friend, Lucky (Chaz Feuerstine), and his girlfriend, Joan -- a chorus dancer who has no love for Mona and who has already befriended the just-arriving Ruby. Amidst a perfectly timed, twinkly-toed tap number, they sing with voices stunningly cute and coy about their planned “Choo-Choo Honeymoon.” Joan (Melissa WolfKlain) will later truly wow the audience as she provides an electrically exciting lead voice to the company’s Act One finale, “Good Times Are Here to Stay” – a number with all the looks and moves of the big, big dance numbers of the 30s musicals, but one performed with only a total of six on this stage.
As opening night looms large, so does the doom of a theatre that is suddenly being demolished to make way for new development, leading the company to premiere its Dames at Sea where the musical most belongs -- on a ship (Uncle Sam’s) at sea. The move is thanks to a past affair Mona had with its Captain – the Captain being played by Keith Pinto who has switched personas and added a mustache from his first-act role of being the manically impatient, always barking and screaming theatre producer/director, Harry Hennesey. (That added mustache, by the way, becomes one of the evening’s funniest threads as he continues to play both roles back and forth.)
|Keith Pinto & Cast|
Playing the Captain that Mona still calls her “Kewpie Doll,” Keith Pinto is like a live, animated cartoon character as he seeks to reignite the love spark with Mona. As Mona and the Captain satire in their duet “The Beguine” every hot, tango-love number ever performed on screen, the Captain woos with panting passion his old flame. Keith Pinto employs hysterically quivering lips, eyes that open as large as full moons, and a mouth that distorts into an uproariously funny shape while he sustains seemingly forever a final, sung note of love.
|Chaz Feuerstine, Melissa WolkKlain, Lauren Meyer & Jeffrey Scott Parsons|
What a hoot Nicole Helfer must have had in planning and executing her dozens of directorial jabs and jokes that are especially fun for anyone who is still a fan (as am I) of the big ‘30s musicals. As choreographer, she has excelled in leading us down memory lane to enjoy frenetic tap dancing, easy-going soft-shoe side-steps, gal/guy numbers full of lifts and twirls, and of course those prop-pretty circular dances around a singing starlet (props like opening and closing umbrellas). Lucky for her in both roles as director and choreographer, this cast of six performs flawlessly all that she has asked -- and more.
Designing period, stage costumes that glitter, dazzle, and often amuse, Ashley Garlick adds her own contribution in both jabbing some fun and clearly admiring with respect all the many changes of dress made in each of those big productions of the ‘30s. Brian Watson’s set design is simple in nature but high in humor, doing its best also to pay some homage to the Art Deco looks of the period. Michael Palumbo’s well-positioned, well-timed lighting cues focus well the full-stage and the singular-spot numbers of the evening.
Music Director extraordinaire, Dave Dobrusky -- in his thirty-eighth time reigning at the keyboards of a Moon production -- is joined by a second baby-grand player, Ken Brill. Their incredibly sounding duet of Jim Wise’s score is well worth an evening concert on its own.
No fault of the two talented musicians, their joint, piano mastery is also where lies the one big issue of the evening (along with the spirited hammering of tapping shoes): The decision not to use either individual or stage microphones for the six, singing performers means that in too many numbers, some lyrics are completely lost – especially when both pianos are in crescendo mode and up to a half-dozen pairs of tapping feet are hitting the wooden boards with all the might they can muster. From Mona’s opening “Wall Street” to Ruby’s fabulously rendered “Star Tar,” too many lyrics simply can not be ascertained – even by this reviewer sitting on the first row. Hopefully, this is a problem soon to be corrected by a company that has historically prided itself (or so it seems) in presenting musicals without any use of mikes.
That said, enough is understood that makes 42nd Street Moon’s song-and-dance love-parody to the outrageously wonderful 1930s musicals an evening to be relished and remembered. For sure, “Good Times Are Here to Stay” at the Moon’s Gateway Theatre – at least through the musical’s December 16th closing.
Rating: 4.5 E
Dames at Sea continues through December 16, 2018 in production by 42nd Street Moon’s Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio