It’s the 1930s and the height of the Great Depression. A pretty young would-be hoofer (that’s hoofer, not hooker!) arrives in New York City with dreams of starring on the Great White Way. When a temperamental Broadway diva becomes indisposed, our sweet young thing is the only chorus girl able to take on the star’s leading role at a moment’s notice.  Recognize the plot? It’s 42nd Street, right?


Thirty-three years after the Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler Warner Brothers movie musical classic and fourteen years before the first Broadway production of 42nd Street (The Musical), Dames At Sea made its off-Broadway debut, a campy spoof of the WB movie.

Dames At Sea’s latest incarnation is a snazzy big-stage revival at Downey Civic Light Opera, imaginatively directed by the one-and-only Marsha Moode and featuring a peppy tap-dancing ensemble of thirteen.

In Dames At Sea, 42nd Street’s Billy Lawlor and Peggy Sawyer have become the not so coincidentally named Dick and Ruby, and diva Dorothy Brock is now Mona Kent, a Broadway star not to be tangled with, especially not by a fresh-off-the-bus Utah hick.  

Pretty blonde Ruby (Emily Moffat, coincidentally just arrived in CA from UT) has arrived in New York City with literally “nothing but tap shoes in her suitcase and a prayer in her heart.”  Not having eaten a bite in three days, not even a graham cracker, she faints into the arms of Dick (Wesley Alfvin), a sailor, would-be songwriter, and (believe it or not) fellow Centerville, Utah native. In a clinch like this, what’s a couple to do but sing “It’s You.”  (“It isn’t Jean Harlow, it isn’t Greta Garbo. It’s you.  It’s you. It’s you!  It’s not Leslie Howard, or even Noel Coward.  It’s you. It’s you.  It’s you!”)

Before you know it, Ruby’s been given a spot in the chorus, which doesn’t allow her much time to learn all her dance steps for tonight’s opening.  Well, it would be opening tonight if not for a slight hitch.  Hennesey (David Kirk Grant), the show’s director, arrives with a bombshell to drop. A demolition crew is parked in front of the theater getting ready to tear it down posthaste, and either the cast find another venue or the show will not go on.

Luckily, sailor boys Dick and best bud Lucky (Bart McHenry) are able to convince their Captain (Grant again) to let them stage the show on board ship!

In 42nd Street, Dorothy Brock breaks a leg and only Peggy Sawyer can save the show.  For Mona (Ann Peck McBride), it’s a case of seasickness, but the end result is the same, with one slight difference. Ruby’s ascent to Broadway stardom takes place a mere hours after her arrival at the bus station. Talk about a fast study!

Clearly, there’s not a believable moment in Dames At Sea, and the higher your understanding and appreciation of camp, the more you will enjoy the show.  I loved it!

George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s book is deliberately outrageous and outrageously funny.  When Mona learns that her name is going to be in big letters above the title, she demands, “Yeah—but how big? Listen, you know the Wrigley sign?  Well—I want it that big.  In color. And twinkling!”  

Further proof that Dames At Sea is not to be taken seriously:  Ruby’s first words are “My name is Ruby and I’m a dancer. I just got off the bus and I want to be in a Broadway show.” When it turns out that chorus girl Glenda “hitched up with Corny Astor the Third last night and sailed on the Berengaria this morning,” Hennessey asks just-arrived Ruby “Do you know the number?  Can you do it?” With dreams of stardom in her big blue eyes, Ruby replies “I’ll try!”  After all, her Uncle Gus always told her, “Those tapping toes of yours are gonna take you a long way.” “And so they have,” Dick tells her now.  “You’re on Broadway!”

Yes, indeedy, Dames At Sea is campy fun indeed.

Songs, by Jim Wise, Haimsohm and Miller, are a catchy bunch, with lyrics and melodies that cleverly spoof better known ditties. There’s Mona’s torchy “Mr. Man Of Mine”: “Once he was a bigshot, swimming in cash, champagne and roses all around.  Then came the crash … and now he can’t afford me.”  In “Broadway Baby,” Dick sings “Broadway! Street of a thousand schemes and a million fears. Broadway! Street of a billion dreams and a trillion tears. Broadway! You river of humanity! Frilly, thrilly, dizzy, jazzy Sassy, brassy, razz-ma-tazzy. Broadway!  I’ll lick you yet!” And, giving new meaning to the term “politically incorrect,” “Singapore Sue” features these lyrics: “So sweet and soft and gentle, my favorite Oriental.  The nicest girl ashore is Singapore Sue.”

Director Moode begins the action even before the first notes of the Overture, with audience members spying on the backstage goings on as the Dames At Sea cast and crew get ready for opening night. Then it’s Musical Director and Conductor Steven Dahlke and the Downey CLO Orchestra playing a medley of Dames At Sea tunes before the opening announcements, given by Hennessy himself (and leaving out any mention of cell phones, this being 1932 after all.)

All six lead performers shine in their roles.  Grant starts off as an all-business Hennesey (in full 42nd Street Julian Marsh mode), then doubles amusingly as a nerdy, coke-bottle-framed glasses-wearing Captain (and Mona’s former flame). Downey CLO treasure McBride is brassy perfection as diva Mona, and like Grant, has some great pipes to belt out Dames At Sea tunes. Alfvin and Moffat are wide-eyed cuteness and freshness as young Dick and Ruby, and both are fine vocalists and tappers. (Manhattan Beach native Alfvin toured for a year with 42nd Street.)  As the “2nd Banana” couple, McHenry and Laura Dickinson as Lucky’s gal pal Joan exhibit fine comedic chops and charmingly duet “Choo Choo Honeymoon.” (How many 1930s hits does that one conjure up?)

The supporting cast is made up of half-a-dozen-plus-one talented actor-singer-dancers: Michael McGreal, Sarah Reed, Amber Quan (a good sport as Singapore Sue), Gay Griffin, Nicole Manly, Andrea Dodson, and Sean Williams.

Gitana Van Buskirk has created some snappy, tappy 30s style choreography skillfully executed by the cast. Lighting by Design Partners Inc. and sound by Ralph Amendola are first rate. Elizabeth Andrade Bowen’s costumes are a just-right bevy of 1930s dresses, gowns, and sailor suits.

Dames At Sea will never beat Oklahoma!, or My Fair Lady, or West Side Story in a competition for best musical ever. In fact, it probably won’t even make the list of finalists.  But never mind that, just go and enjoy.  It’s more fun than a quite a few “serious” musicals put together.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd. , Downey.

–Steven Stanley
February 20, 2009

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