The great movie and Broadway musicals of the 1930s seem both naive and extravagant in hindsight. Depression-era folk wanted to lose sight of their dreary poverty in visions of glittery gowns and lighthearted romances. The humor in these shows was usually slightly naughty but never really earthy; the brash showgirl found her equal and the innocent heroine her hero.
The musicals of the past thirty years have been far more apt to involve dark themes and tuneless music, reflecting both the laudable social consciousness and the reprehensible, self-indulgent angst of the times. But a change is as good as a rest now and then. So when Dames at Sea came out on Broadway in 1968, reprising Thirties' goofball innocence, it was a hit. Unpretentious and tongue-in-cheek, this energetic bauble still manages a mild satire of both the Thirties and the Nineties, as the slick production at the Country Dinner Playhouse attests.
The story concerns young Ruby, a dancer from Utah who arrives penniless in New York, having spent every dime of her savings on the bus ride to the Great White Way. She stumbles into a Broadway theater and asks for a job as a dancer. Fortunately for her, one of the chorus girls has just run off with a rich sugar daddy, and the show must go on.
Ruby learns the routines from the choreographer while her new friend Joan has lunch with Lucky, the sailor who serves as Joan's main squeeze. Meanwhile, Ruby has time to meet and fall for another sailor, Dick, who also happens to be a songwriter. The love-at-first-sight gag lasts through the whole show, but temptation and conflict arise in the person of the Broadway star Mona Kent, who wants Dick for herself. One of the best songs in the show is "That Mister Man of Mine," a comic number Mona sings with Dick.
Outside the theater, however, bad stuff is coming down--including the theater itself, as the wrecking ball arrives to make way for a skating rink. Dick hits on the plan of opening the show on his battleship--if only the Old Man can be convinced. Well, slut that she is, Mona once knew the captain in the biblical sense of the word, and he proves once again to be putty in her paws.
Once on board, seasick Mona collapses when Dick and Lucky connive to move the spotlight too quickly around the stage. Again Ruby must save the day with a showstopping song-and-tap routine--and, naturally, the characters settle in with their appropriate mates at the end of the show.
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Beth Swearingen gives Mona a Carol Burnett-style comic arrogance that works best when it's most extreme. Her singing voice lacks the power of the other women on stage, though, and she could use a touch more flamboyance. Cydney Rosenbaum gives Ruby wide-eyed, baby-doll charm perfect for the role, and her tap-dancing is skilled and pleasant. But it's Heidi Morrow who steals the show as Joan--a nasal, worldly New Yorker with a good-time presence that's invariably engaging. Her two songs are the most delightful of the evening.
The guys here are good, if not as winning as the women. Paul Dwyer as Dick and John Ordway as Lucky provide a ballast of solid, if unremarkable, performances, while Michael Gorman gives the Captain some of the funniest physical shtick of the evening.
Gorman, who doubles as the choreographer, has also done a knockout job staging elaborate tap-dance routines on the small stage at CDP. The first act, in particular, moves quickly.
Dames at Sea is the kind of giddy entertainment sure to please an older generation of theatergoers. But its corny goofiness is a pleasant relief, too, from the world-weariness of so many contemporary musicals.