Nowadays, send-ups of old movie musicals tend to play about as well as the films they spoof. There are enough such satires that they've become a subgenre themselves; we've seen so many stage, film and television takeoffs on Busby Berkeley, et al., that the lines between the parodies and their antecedents are beginning to blur. The last time this genre was lampooned with any originality was in 1973, when Britisher Richard O'Brien tossed together the trashy no-brainer that became The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
That's why Phoenix Theatre's Dames at Sea is such a delightful surprise. Thanks to some artful direction, canny choreography and a talented cast, this little nothing provokes fond memories rather than pummeling us with giddy references to the late show.
Without all the smug eye-rolling and audience-nudging that mark most musical spoofs, there's plenty of room for swell song and dance. Where revivals of Little Mary Sunshine and The Boyfriend depend on a heap of camp and a working knowledge of Depression-era musicals to get past the footlights, this timeless tune fest is just plain fun to watch and listen to.
George Haimsohn and Robin Miller's original book is short on story and long on nostalgia. The paltry plot fuses a Mickey-and-Judy "show must go on" yarn with the one about the ingenue who goes out a chorus girl and comes back a star. The backstage story heads out to sea in the second act, providing an excuse for a lot of allusion to those cinema classics where the gob gets the girl.
Director/choreographer Marc Robin downplays the corny dialogue and goofball song cues in the script and showcases his strong cast and his own flair for production numbers. Robin's dance steps reflect the era he's depicting, and are inventive without being derivative. The dance numbers take their humor from silly setups, rather than from send-ups of the dances themselves.
Robin strips down the more over-the-top, Busby Berkeleyesque displays, replacing pomp with perfect precision dancing and simple tap steps. In other productions I've seen of Dames at Sea, the ensemble numbers come off like the last 15 minutes of a Carol Burnett Show rerun, all ambition but no budget. Here, they sparkle with spare choreography and imagination.
One number, "That Mister Man of Mine," is a standout. While Robyn Ferracane belts out a dead-on homage to George and Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love," the chorus, in black body bags a la Martha Graham, creates a creepy chorus line behind her. And the title song provides the perfect excuse for a pair of sailors to promenade the poop deck with a couple of mops in a loose, funny take on Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
A talented cast helps keep things afloat. Ferracane devours scenery as Mona Kent, an aging theatre diva with a penchant for seamen. Ferracane seems relieved to be spoofing all those creaky, old musical comedy roles she's built her career on, rather than kicking another one around the stage. Rubber-faced Sally Jo Bannow, in a wig like a copper pot scrubber, scores as a cocky chorine with a heart of gold and a great big singing voice. And praising Debby Rosenthal for her charming performance as a sweet young thing with an outstanding vocal range is like applauding Doris Day for being cheerful. Rosenthal has the best voice in town, and she steals every scene she's in here. But it's time she did something with these talents other than singing the same cutie-pie role every season.
Matthew MacDougall and Rusty Ferracane are perfect as a couple of sea dogs on leave. The pair's fluid, rubbery dance moves and aw-shucks delivery call to mind the young Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, bouncing off one another on the town.
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Robert Reid La France, in a pair of roles that show off his considerable comic talents and his remarkable baritone, looks like every dance captain in every grainy Warner Bros. musical ever lensed. Squint, and you'll see Dick Powell.
The production design enhances the show's vintage feel. Gro Johre's stylized sets call to mind a colorized motion picture, all pastels and suave silver deco. Rebecca Powell's costuming provides contrast with flat, bright colors that give the cast a garishly hand-tinted look. (And her excessively ornate designs for Mona Kent expertly conceal the fact that Robyn Ferracane is very pregnant.) Director Marc Robin can't seem to resist this setting, and repeatedly poses his cast in comical tableaux straight out of old movie stills.
It's too bad that Dames at Sea's big finale is such a letdown. If "Star Tar" weren't a washout, this musical would be one of those rare, flawless productions that we see so little of--and that we saw absolutely none of during Phoenix Theatre's previous season. But even without a splashy windup, Dames at Sea is a seaworthy salute to a tired type of musical theatre.
Dames at Sea continues through Sunday, October 13, at Phoenix Theatre. For more details, see Theatre listing in Thrills.