The setup: Before sometime in the 1940s, American musical theater consisted of just a buttload of singing and dancing, reasons to look at women's exposed legs, and no particular attempt at character or storytelling. During the Great Depression, movies were an affordable, diverting novelty, and the more implausibly cheerful and uplifting the plots, the better we liked them. So the Busby Berkeley style of extravaganza (which did add a tiny bit of narrative, conveniently about show business, generally) filled the silver screen like implausible giant cupcakes in a glass case.
Flash forward to the mid-1960s in Manhattan. Rodgers and Hammerstein have changed everything. Fiddler on the Roof is somewhere in the middle of what will be its first 3,242 performances. We're mere months or a couple of years out from shows like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Oh! Calcutta! Counterculture sentiment and avant-garde expression are erupting everywhere. But a team of spunky troupers in a Greenwich Village club put together a literally cheap, six-person parody of those '30s tuners called Dames at Sea. It starred newcomer Bernadette Peters, it became a bona fide off-Broadway hit, and you can see it now at Hale Centre Theatre on Mondays and Tuesdays only -- not your usual theater nights.
The execution: The music, lyrics, and book of this show (by Jim Wise, George Haimsohn, and Robin Miller, who never really did anything like this again) are simple perfection, and the cast mostly has to belt, tap, and get out of the way -- which is actually supremely challenging. Director Cambrian James and musical director Lincoln Wright are two of the best at what they do, and Mary Atkinson's costumes and Jeff A. Davis' lights subtly punch up both the cast's heavy lifting and the atmosphere of the understandably low-key settings: Act I, an empty theater (so far, so good); Act II, the deck of a battleship (you'll just have to trust me).
The silly and adorable parts, all entirely intentional, are emphasized with the appropriate wide-eyed innocence coexisting with sassy tongue-in-cheeky awareness of the joke, an attitude that's absolutely necessary for a show like this. As a 20-ish woman who's still stretchy, along with being tall and lithe, Kate E. Cook (Damn Yankees) nails Joan, the tough-as-nails, heart-of-gold hoofer who doesn't want to see anyone's dreams dashed even while her own are in peril. When Cook sits on a ladder and kicks, you worry that the ceiling might indeed come down. And it's impressive.
The dames probably should be the focus here, and along with Emily Giauque Evans (also Yankees), who can apparently do no wrong, as fresh-off-the-bus Ruby, we have the delightful Laura Pyper as the slinky, slightly older, manipulative closest-thing-to-a-villain, diva Mona Kent. She gets to be sultry and soignée, trying to lure our hero out to her Packard and penthouse, really just to steal his fresh new songs, and then she gets to pretend to be an anonymous chorus girl in every other production number. (Because, remember, there are only half a dozen actors.) Pyper's voice really grounds the show in the lower register of female yearning and deliciousness, and when she's playing Mona, in an assortment of outfits that are all floor-sweeping opulence, she personifies the glamor that all the work and sweat and blisters are alleged to lead to.
The three guys (Tedd Glazebrook, Vinny Chavez, and Julian Peña) are also great. I used to wonder why performers at Hale wear body mics, because I'm kind of a blockhead -- it's really pretty obvious, because the audience surrounds the cast on all sides and when you're singing or speaking, you're always facing away from someone. If I could, then, I would raise the volume on Chavez during his big Act I solo, "Broadway Baby." He's all alone out there with the prerecorded soundtrack (very good and well-played-back, as it always is at Hale, though a little fast, as it also often is), and the thing is he has to dance like a fiend while singing a love song. He'd be getting paid a lot more if that were easy for him.
We lose just a few words of Pyper's opener, "Wall Street," when her chorus of four starts tapping. It's not perfect, which means it's a bit louder than a more precision execution would be. But the song's a segue into a fiery opening scene, and it's all uphill from there.
In less than 24 imaginary hours, the Dames at Sea find love, stardom, and marriage, and you will find a show that uses only the fun-loving part of your brain. Is it possible that four of the cast are also in 9 to 5 at Hale on their off nights? Possible and true. Wow.
The verdict: Check out this cute-as-hell video, in which James talks too much:
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and buy your tickets quick before they're gone. (Only two non-sold-out nights remain.) Get to downtown Gilbert a little early for a sunset stroll and a meal or drink. It's almost as charming as the show. Dames at Sea continues through Tuesday, April 29, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 West Page Avenue. Tickets are $16 to $26; order here or call 480-497-1181.