Thanks go to Porthouse Theatre for a show that's as light as the lint from a gnat's navel. Dames at Sea is an affectionate send-up of movie musicals from the 1930s and '40s -- especially the ones that launched an innocent young ingénue, fresh from flyover country, into stardom. Since neither the play's authors nor director Eric van Baars take any of this fluff seriously, the show creates the perfect escape hatch for a sultry evening.
Dames is modeled after the classic 42nd Street, right down to naive young Ruby (a nod to film legend Ruby Keeler), who arrives in New York from Centerville, Utah, with only a pair of tap shoes in her valise. Of course she wanders into a theater where the cast is rehearsing for opening night, and of course she gets the standard film-musical job interview from the crusty producer: "It's a jungle out there; Broadway is the boulevard of broken dreams; you're hired." Ruby is filled with doubt, but wise chorine Joan talks her into staying. Of course.
Faint with hunger, Ruby begins to teeter delicately as a sailor who followed her to the theater catches her in mid-swoon. They lock orbs. He intones: "When I look in your eyes, there's only one thing I want to do." "What?" she asks. " Sing!" "Is that all?" she persists. "No . . . dance!" (Sailor Dick stands in for Dick Powell, and chorus-girl Joan represents Joan Blondell, two perennial stars of this cinema genre.)
With book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, and music by Jim Wise, Dames captures some of the cornball whimsy of those flicks without ever stooping to mean-spirited parody. Helpful edge is provided, however, by Mona Kent, a veteran of the Great White Way with a passion for above-the-title billing and young sailors in tight uniforms. Soon she is maneuvering to get secret songwriter Dick (he keeps his sheet music under his shirt, just in case) over to her penthouse, where she can determine how good he really is at scoring.
The Porthouse cast lights up the stage, with Emily Leonard giving Ruby a cute-as-Betty-Boop appearance and a voice perfectly matched to her songs; her wistful rendition of "Raining in My Heart" is more touching than it deserves. She is backed by the full cast, carrying transparent plastic umbrellas with lights inside, to augment her sadness at seeing Dick run off temporarily with Mona.
As Mona, Porthouse fixture Mary Ann Black delivers her usual professional performance, snapping off punch lines with gusto and singing up a storm (with the exception of the opening "Wall Street," which feels oddly off balance). As Dick, Alex Jorth has such an innocent face, it seems as if he really did just fall off the turnip truck. While his voice is a bit soft and hesitant, and he doesn't quite command the stage as he should, he makes a capable love interest for Ruby.
Frank-talking, gum-popping Joan is played by Blondell look-alike Jodi Beck, but without the original's deft ability to toss away one-liners like damp cocktail napkins. And Erik Floor puts every ounce of expressiveness into Dick's sailor pal, Lucky, turning this smaller role into a miniature gem.
Director van Baars and choreographer Sean T. Morrissey keep the energy percolating with their interesting staging decisions, from Mona pulling a feather boa out of the top of an upright piano to cleverly composed tap-dance numbers. Even small moments have crispness and clarity: When the producer gathers his cast to announce the bad news that their theater is being torn down, the kids eagerly and humorously gather at his feet like well-trained Mouseketeers.
Though act one ends in the theater's destruction -- with a surprising stage effect from scenic designer Paul Denayer to boot -- all is not lost. Taking to heart the advice Ruby gets ("I know you can't, and you know you can't . . . but you will!"), the company stages its show on the deck of Dick and Lucky's ship. They gain access to the poop deck after Mona seduces the captain (a thoroughly amusing Geoff Stephenson) in the comical duet "The Beguine," which includes the ineffable lyric alluding to a past tryst, "I remember Pensacola."
Cheerfully over-the-top costumes by S.Q. Campbell and Wendi R. Zea add visual zest to this theatrical novelty, which goes down easy and won't disturb even one synapse on its way through your brain. Just what we need this time of year.
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