‘Dames at Sea’ at The Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City

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Way back in the dark ages (circa early 1930s) when musicals were musical comedies (if you don’t know what I mean, listen to “Musicals,” the showstopper in the light-hearted hit Something Rotten!), the writers and composers’ aim was simply to entertain, not to comment (except with a wink) on the then current world outside, not to lecture, not to preach. Many years later, towards the end of 1969 a  young performer  came onstage as an unknown and took a bow two hours later as a star. She was Bernadette Peters and as “Ruby” in this delightful spoof of those early  musicals she had the kind of notices which are the stuff of which dreams are made.

John Bolton (Hennesey), Danny Gardner (Lucky), Mara Davi (Joan), Cary Tedderas (Dick), and Eloise Kropp (Ruby). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
John Bolton (Hennesey), Danny Gardner (Lucky), Mara Davi (Joan), Cary Tedderas (Dick), and Eloise Kropp (Ruby). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Well, here we are some fifty years later, and it’s taken ten or twelve stout-hearted producers, led by the Infinity Theatre Company, to offer us another look at the material. It is still charming stuff, with its heart on its sleeve, really trying hard to endear itself to us, offering itself up as a throwback to escapist entertainment. It only managed a four-month engagement first time out, but that was considered OK for a small musical back in Off Broadway’s adolescence.

This time out, the producing team has opted for Broadway, placing the show in the smallest theatre on the Main Stem, the Helen Hayes on West 44th Street, just two doors down from Sardi’s, the famous theatrical restaurant hangout. They’ve put together a company of just six, featuring as Ruby; fresh from the ensemble of the  revival of On The Town, which recently concluded a decent run on Broadway. Ms. Kropp is personable, taps and twirls with charm and talent, but this production has been  directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner in a manner that makes it more of an ensemble piece, and Ms. Kropp emerges as one of six talented young performers who deliver the goods.

“The goods” in this instance is a light hearted spoof of a book that includes about every plot twist to be found in the 1930s Warner Brother musicals that featured Ruby Keeler and  Dick Powell, with a slew of others who could tap their way out the doors, down the streets, up and down battleships or sideways on a flirtation walk. Ruby this time out is a youngster from Utah, who arrives backstage at a Broadway theatre which houses a musical that is opening tomorrow. As luck would have it, a member of the chorus has just fallen ill, and Ruby proves to the director she can pick up the routines in nothing flat. But no, her big break is postponed, as the theatre building itself is about to be demolished, and a couple of sailors who have dropped in to flirt with the girls suggests they do the show on the battleship which is their home away from home. So, as the theatre walls begin to crumble under the weight of the wrecking ball, as the second act begins we are — on the battleship.

John Bolton (The Captain) and Lesli Margherita (Mona Kent). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
John Bolton (The Captain) and Lesli Margherita (Mona Kent). Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Mona Kent, the leading lady (played with demonic comical control by Lesli Margherita) conveniently falls ill just before the opening curtain, and guess who is called on to glance at the score and play the role? That’s right – it’s Ruby, who miraculously knows every one of Ms. Mona’s numbers as well as their accompanying movements. Ruby and her new friend Joan, plus the two sailor suitors, with the help of the ship’s captain (John Bolton, doubling after playing the director in the first act) perform everything from “Dames At Sea” to the star turn for Ruby, “Star Tar,” which leads to a triumphant triple wedding for everyone, and a tune for the occasion, “Let’s Have A Simple Wedding.” If all this information boggles your mind, do not fear. No one’s mind was expected to exercise when at a musical, and a good thing, too.

Everyone carries his weight in this multi-talented cast, but Cary Tedderas makes a particularly good impression as “Dick” (of course) who falls for Ruby on first sight. Their first duet, “It’s You” allows them to tap around the stage and Mr. Tedder proves himself a light and accomplished juvenile lead, reminiscent of the astonishing Robert Fairchild in the current revisical An American In Paris. It’s a pity that today’s crop of musicals so rarely can now make use of this sort of song and dance man as they deal with more sobering contemporary issues, not the sort that lend themselves to soft shoe, arms akimbo and light voices capable of delivering laughs or smiles when needed.

Not to mention the joys of first love as expressed while sashaying around the floor in the throws of it. John Bolton, who plays the constantly hysterical director in the first act, and the rigid captain who happens to know how to tap in the second, is a particular delight in both roles. And there hasn’t been as mean and rotten (or amusing) star leading lady on stage since Dorothy Brock tried to sabotage Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, so who cares if Mona Kent’s identical plan for Ruby in Dames At Sea is a literal ripoff?

For a pleasant two hour visit with a score that never even tries to be original, and with six eager and talented singers-dancers-actors, you can have a jolly time at the Helen Hayes Theatre. The best thing about this kewpie doll of a show are the dazzling dance routines that feature two, four and six performers throughout the evening. In spoofing early film musicals, George Hamilton, Robin Miller and Jim Wise, the authors of this very innocent show have come up with one of their own that reminds us how clueless the world was only half a century ago.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

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Dames at Sea is playing at The Helen Hayes Theatre – 240 West 44th Street, in New York City. For tickets, visit the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.