The campy 42nd Street spoof affectionately titled Dames At Sea proves a terrific showcase for the musical theater talents of UC Irvine in the Department Of Drama’s annual end-of-school-year big-stage musical, directed with oodles of imagination by UCI’s brand new Head Of Directing Jane Page.

 Like its Warner Brothers/Busby Berkeley predecessor, Dames At Sea transports us back to 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.

George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s book is deliberately outrageous and outrageously funny, taking 42nd Street’s Billy Lawlor and Peggy Sawyer and redubbing them (not-so-coincidentally) Dick and Ruby. Diva Dorothy Brock is now called Mona Kent, though she remains a Broadway star not to be tangled with, especially not by a fresh-off-the-bus Midwest hick. Songs, by Jim Wise, Haimsohm and Miller, are a catchy bunch, with lyrics and melodies that cleverly spoof better known ditties.

Pixyish Ruby (Hannah Balagot) 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 (Jake Saenz), 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 sassy chorine named Joan (Jenna Gillespie), met Dames At Sea’s harried director Hennesey (Grant Markin) and its imperious star Mona Kent (Lindsey Iversen), 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, Dames 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 boy Dick and his best bud Lucky (Marcus Silva) are able to convince their good-natured Captain (Chris Bunyi) 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 love the musical, and I love what Page and company have done in adapting its original concept—six performers on a blackbox stage taking the place of six times that many in a great big Broadway house—for a larger stage, and a grand total of fifteen performers.

Following a flashy opening number showcasing a pizzazzy Iversen and chorus girls Karli Blalock (Maxine), Michelle Ditto (Bubbles), Shelby Monson (Ginger) and dance captain Joy Newbegin (Trixie) wearing little more than a few extra big coins each, director Page reveals the first of numerous inspired ways she will integrate these four “Dames” and an equal number of Stage Hands/Sailors (Dean Hendricks as Arty/Bob, Morgan Hollingsworth as Floyd/Charlie, Niko Montelibano as Frank/Wallace, and David Anthony Wright, Jr. as Lefty/Eddie) into musical sequences originally designed to be played by a handful of performers.

Dick and Ruby have only just launched into their love-at-first-sight ballad “It’s You” when out of nowhere a chorus line materializes to back them up, then just as quickly vanishes into the wings … though not for long. A live-action, nearly full-cast flashback accompanies Mona’s “That Mister Man Of Mine,” with that “Mister Man” of Mona’s losing considerably more than his shirt. In “Choo-Choo Honeymoon,” chorus girls suddenly emerge one after another from a giant storage bin labeled “Props” for a big tap sequence, after which a succession of storage bins become the “Choo Choo” Joan and Lucky have been crooning about. “Singapore Sue” is performed live, but in silhouettes projected from behind on a gigantic center-stage screen. Act One’s grand finale features Mona atop a movable Matterhorn as boys in lederhosen and girls dressed as Christmas Heidis spin her round and round, the better to justify Mona’s sudden bout of seasickness.

 Act Two surprises involve mirror balls, yellow rain slickers and matching umbrellas, and a giant heart made of crystals falling just like rain for the appropriately titled “Raining In My Heart.”

 A terrific young cast of triple threats put their personal stamp on each of Dames At Sea’s colorful cast of characters. Iverson channels her inner vamp, hilariously, as the oh-so full-of-herself Mona. The splendidly spunky Balagot is such a waif of a gal that her great big operetta-ready soprano comes as a delightful surprise. Saenz couldn’t be a more appealing Dick with just the right musical theater tenor for the role. A fabulous Gillespie gives Mona Brooklyn moxie (and an accent to match). Silva is a charismatic charmer with one of the cast’s richest voices. (Suggestion: A line or two might be added to explain the cane Lucky relies on [Silva is recovering from a broken foot] rather than leave it to the audience’s imagination.)  Markin and Bunyi have great fun too as harried director and harried ship’s captain. And kudos go to all the above for dance moves equal to their vocal dexterity.

 As for those Dames, Stage Hands, and Sailors, they all deserve a round of applause for performing a variety of roles in an even bigger variety of costumes, and for executing choreographer Tracey Bonner’s intricate, energetic tap numbers.

Musical director extraordinaire Daniel Gary Busby conducts the expert three-piece pit band—Dennis Castellano and Taylor Stephenson on pianos and Brian Boyce on drums.

Designwise, Dames At Sea is a winner as well. Scenic designer Eric Barker takes us from Act One’s backstage at Broadway’s Hippodrome Theatre to Act Two’s Navy battleship poop deck. Leslie Stamoolis has designed a colorful bevy of 1930s costumes, which Jennifer Hill lights with dazzle and flair. Patricia Cordona scores high marks for her sound design. Shannon Goldsborough is stage manager.

With its clever blend of nostalgia, camp, romance, melody, laughter, and dance, this all-around smashing production provides a thoroughly entertaining showcase for its topnotch cast of up-and-coming student talents. Dames At Sea at UCI is a musical theater bonbon for audiences of all ages.

UCI Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine Campus, Irvine.

–Steven Stanley
June 5, 2012

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