Ryan Findley

Dames at Sea can inspire us all

By - Sep 16th, 2010 04:00 am
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Photos courtesy of the Skylight Opera Theatre

The popular conception of Dames at Sea, a musical written in the mid-1960s about the big, brassy musicals of the 1930s, is that it is a spoof of those earlier cinematic productions. Pam Kriger, co-director of the Skylight Opera Theater’s production of Dames at Sea, couldn’t disagree more.

With Bill Theisen, Kriger is directing the Skylight’s production, which opens this Friday, September 17, and runs through October 3 in the Broadway Theater Center’s Cabot Theater. Rather than satire or spoof, Kriger sees in Haimsohn and Miller’s story, and in the music of Jim Wise, a “heartfelt Valentine” to the musical cinema of the early 20th century. There is a sense of reverence for these over-the-top, glitzy shows in the story, and Wise’s music pays homage to every style of musical theater that ruled that earlier age.

But the history of the show itself is important to understanding its intent. Dames at Sea was originally performed by a cast of six in an off-off-Broadway theater that also doubled as a coffee house. Though this was the show that got Bernadette Peters her big break, space was tight, funds were minimal, there was no chorus (or even much of a set to speak of). This, no doubt, is the genesis of the idea of “Dames at Sea” as parody. How could such a thing (especially being written in the 60s) not be ironic in some way? And yet Kriger insists that it is not.

The show, she says, is “good entertainment.” Everything about it is entertaining, from the story and the music right down to the cast (only one more actor than that original coffeehouse staging). There is singing, there is dancing, there is falling in love and farcical misunderstanding; there is a naïve ingenue who gets her shot and makes it. There are three (yes, THREE) tap numbers in Dames at Sea, and the script is full of clever allusions to the Busby-Berkeley-style musicals from which Dames takes its inspiration.

One couple are Ruby and Dick, as Kriger points out, and there was an incredibly well-known couple of those same names back in the thirties. But even if that particular joke would go over your head, the script itself is simply clever. The dialog (what there is of it, packed in between all the musical numbers) sparkles.

While the Skylight has kept the cast at seven members, meaning there is no real “chorus” in Dames at Sea, they will be doing a full staging with complete sets and costumes. Those, in point of fact, have been in progress for significantly longer than the actors have been rehearsing. This only adds to the marvelous entertainment value of the show, according to Kriger. Dames at Sea is a sweet, touching, rollicking spectacle, definitely of another time in our culture when people used the words “Gosh!” and “Heck!” and stories about plucky chorus girls and people doing things against all odds and doing it cheerfully were wildly popular.

And maybe there’s something to that. Dames at Sea was written about a time when America was in the grips of one of the worst economic crises it has ever faced. Sound familiar? Maybe what we all need is a little of that pluck, a gentle reminder that if your theater is demolished, you can always find a boat to perform on. The gist of Dames at Sea is that if you have a little determination and a lot of cheer, you can accomplish anything. Perhaps such a thing is exactly what we all need to hear.

Dames at Sea runs through October 3 in the Cabot Theater. Further information and tickets can be found at the Skylight website.

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