We gave it a B-
Genre: Musical; Starring: Eloise Kropp, Mara Davi, Lesli Margherita; Director: Randy Skinner; Music: Jim Wise; Lyrics: George Haimsohn and Robin Miller; Book: George Haimsohn and Robin Miller; Opening Date: Oct. 22, 2015
In our cynical little world, the Broadway musical has morphed into a versatile form, oscillating between macro and micro inspections of humanity, which is all fine and well, were it not for the fact that the genre is at its purest when we’re at our most optimistic. Boiled down to basic ingredients, the most cheerful tuners often share the same quirky, classic DNA: tap-dancing showstoppers, Broadway chorus lines, and for an inexplicable reason, boats. All are on display in Dames at Sea, a long-produced if lesser-famed parody of those Busby Berkeley dazzlers from the golden age — but optimism alone can’t keep a one-note ship afloat for too long.
Director and choreographer Randy Skinner’s dimpled mounting of Dames at Sea, premiering for the first time on Broadway despite fifty years of hovering in the footlight ether of New York and beyond, offers an inside wink followed by a nod followed by a nudge and then four more winks for good measure. It’s a specific spoof for a specific fan — one who exists somewhere between old school musical nerd and classic movie buff, people who just might believe that glooms are real and can be cured with a song. The first act takes a jab at the prompt formation of a non-descript Broadway musical as a wrecking ball outside the theater threatens to demolish the place on opening night; act two saves the show and moves the action to a naval liner, where the mania of mounting a musical on a ship doesn’t seem nearly as zany as the characters would have you believe.
Under Skinner’s uneven direction, the production waffles between a nicely prepared inside joke and the clunky result of its own satire. He vacillates between parody and earnestness, with the former offering genuine moments of humor for the very precise breed of fan who will appreciate them and the latter landing with something of a confusing, elongated thud. Dames at Sea is at its best when it breezes along and pokes fun at the girl who hops off the bus and lands a Broadway show within seconds; it sinks when extended stints of sincerity take over in between. That has perhaps more to do with the libretto than with Skinner’s production itself, but here, the lengthy pauses between laughs can feel severe.
Fortunately, the piece’s performers are perfectly cast to deliver the very long joke. As a parody of old-timey timestep, the frequent tap routines are clever and impressive, if not innovative. The six-person ensemble is wholly in fine voice (leading lady Eloise Kropp, who made her Broadway debut just last year in On the Town, makes a lasting impression as lucky ingénue Ruby), but if anything, the cast suffers from the comic velocity of one of its supporting players. Lesli Margherita, fresh off an original turn as the malicious Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda, plays stormy diva Mona Kent as an irrational stage doyenne who’s so far past the brink of her self-delusion that she’s actually quite endearing in her villainy. Margherita’s performance in Dames at Sea is a show highlight, but it’s so elevated that it leaves a vast gap which the rest of the cast must noticeably strive to fill (the closest match to her outrageousness is the always dependable John Bolton, playing double duty as act one’s harrowed writer-director-producer-stage manager amalgam as well as the captain of the ship where the show-within-the-show relocates in act two).
Dames at Sea, for its innocuous delights, is a perfectly happy theatrical entry, but perhaps it has spent fifty years off Broadway for a reason: its satire does not bite so much as nibble. This production could have benefitted from a larger cast, a larger theater, or a larger reason to exist — something that turns it from nice to necessary. As this very solid production stands, it’s not particularly nautical and not particularly naughty, either. B–