It’s the 1930s and the height of the Great Depression. A pretty young would-be hoofer 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, Dames At Sea made its off-Broadway debut, a campy spoof of the WB movie.

Burbank’s Colony Theatre now revives this delectable gem in a production directed with so much imagination by Todd Nielsen, choreographed with such taptastic flair by Lisa Hopkins, and starring such a sensational cast of six that it should make any musical theater lover’s must-see list for Spring 2012.

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 brunette Ruby (Tessa Grady) 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 (Jeffrey Scott Parsons), 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 Noël Coward. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you!”)

Before you know it, Ruby’s made friends with a blonde chorine named Joan (Shanon Mari Mills), met the show’s harried director Hennesey (Dink O’Neal) and its divalicious star Mona Kent (Heather Ayers), and 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. 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 (Justin Michael Wilcox) are able to convince their good-natured Captain (O’Neal again) to let them stage the show on board ship!

Clearly, there’s not a believable moment in Dames At Sea, and the greater 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 “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.”

 With performers and creative team as all-around fabulous as those assembled by Colony artistic director Barbara Beckley, Dames At Sea makes for one of the Colony’s best musicals ever. With its cast of six, it’s also the theater company’s biggest musical since 2005’s The Grand Tour, and for those like this reviewer who may be “revued out,” the Colony’s first book musical since No Way To Treat A Lady three years ago.

Neilsen, who’s been a Colony Theatre luminary for as long as I can remember, shows off his directorial ingenuity from the get-go, introducing the cast one by one as they might have been introduced in a 1930s Warner Brothers musical, with each of their faces popping out of a (hand-held in this case) lifebuoy. The show’s opening number, “Wall Street,” features not only Mona, but a pair of emerald green dancing skyscrapers. “That Mister Man Of Mine” makes great use of projected silhouettes. And all this is just for starters.

 As for the cast gathered on the Colony stage, they don’t come any more talented than this Dames At Sea sextet of triple-threats, beginning with the boy-and-girl-next-door duo of Parsons and Grady. Having starred in both 42nd Street and Crazy for You, Utah native Parsons (whose home town happens to be just twenty minutes from Centerville) gives Dick the perfect combination of boyish pep and pizzazz, and taps with the finest of them. Grady, fresh from her delightful turn as Leisl in 3-D’s The Sound Of Music, is every bit as peppy and pizzazzy as her leading man, taps quite dazzlingly, and like Parsons, plays her role with wide-eyed innocence and charm.

Wilcox and Mills are dazzlers in their own right as the musical’s feisty second leads, and the always terrific O’Neal plays both Hennesey and the Captain with just the right tongue-in-cheek zing.

Finally, stealing every scene she’s in (as any diva worth her weight in diamonds must do) is the divine Ayers, freshly arrived in L.A. from New York City.  With a string of Broadway and off-Broadway credits on her résumé, Ayers proves a triple threat who can belt with the best of them while scoring some of the evening’s biggest laughs merely by whisper-gasping “It’s good!”—or by stretching out the “ble” in “ensemble”—or even simply by carrying a ladder to rearrange the letters in Mona’s misspelled name-in-lights.

There are probably more tap numbers in Dames At Sea than in any musical since 42nd Street, making Hopkins (who not so coincidentally co-created a hit show called Tap Kids) the perfect choice to choreograph, and since you won’t be seeing three or four dozen feet all tapping in unison, Dames At Sea’s smaller cast makes it all the easier to focus on just how imaginative Hopkins’ tap choreography is.

Musical director Dean Mora and Brent Crayon on keyboards and Brian Boyce on percussion replicate the show’s original off-Broadway orchestrations in glorious stereophonic sound.

As for the production’s design team, they don’t come any more creative than scenic designer Stephen Gifford, costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, sound designer Drew Dalzell, properties designers (and set decorators) MacAndME, and hair and make-up designer Joni Rudesill, making this a Dames At Sea that looks and sounds as great as it is performed.

Leesa Freed is production stage manager.

With its clever blend of nostalgia, camp, romance, melody, laughter, and dance, it’s hard to imagine a more delightful or entertaining musical theater bonbon than Dames At Sea, particularly when every single artist involved in the show gets it absolutely right. At the Colony, they do exactly that.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
April 14, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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