How cruel, to make comparisons with a legendary star! How unkind! How unfair! Well, tough luck, because here it comes: the new leading lady of “Dames at Sea” is no Bernadette Peters. There’s nothing wrong with this revival that Peters, who played the role of Ruby in the original 1968 production, couldn’t fix. But musical theater stars of her caliber don’t grow on trees, and although newcomer Eloise Kropp is a power tapper par excellence, she hasn’t the saucy charm of a Broadway Baby like Ruby — or the magnetic appeal of a star like Peters.
The plot, devised by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, is an affectionate — and smartly constructed — sendup of Hollywood’s fantasies about how Broadway stage shows were built. (Like Rome, it took a whole day.)
First you need a girl from the sticks like Ruby (Kropp), who embodies all the qualities of Ruby Keeler. (“My name is Ruby and I’m a dancer. I just got off the bus and I want to be in a Broadway show.”)
Ruby doesn’t know the show, she’s never heard the music, and no one’s showed her the dance routines. But boy, the girl has spunk! When a place in the chorus opens up, she learns every number on the spot. And when, at the end of the show, the leading lady (Lesli Margherita, a divinely funny diva) suddenly becomes indisposed, Ruby steps in and saves the show.
“Just think, Ruby,” her Dick Powell-esque sweetheart (the squeaky clean Cary Tedder) reminds her — and us. “Just this morning you were on a bus with nothing but a pair of tap shoes in your suitcase and a prayer in your heart. And now you’re a big Broadway star, the toast of Manhattan.”
The music (by Jim Wise) and lyrics (Haimsohn and Miller) are full of the same kind of clever references to period songs and popular songwriters. “That Mister Man of Mine,” the bluest of blues numbers and shamelessly spoofed by Margherita, is a hilarious takedown of Jerome Kern. “It’s You,” a sophisticated name-dropping number (not a good fit for the unsophisticated Ruby and Dick), is pure Noel Coward. And “The Beguine” (another howler for Margherita, partnered by John Bolton), is high-class Bizet, by way of Gershwin.
Director-choreographer Randy Skinner (who staged “42nd Street” and countless Encores! tribute-revivals) has an almost spooky affinity for this material. He clearly loves 1920s and 30s movie musicals like “42nd Street” and “No, No Nanette,” and for the Busby Berkeley-style choreography that makes them such fun to spoof.
The lighting design alone (by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz) earns a smile for the high-beam intensity of its blindingly bright colors. Anna Louizos extends this visual definition of pop-art parody to two-dimensional set pieces for the bare-bones backstage of a Broadway theater due for demolition and for the flat-faced battleship that becomes the makeshift stage of the dislocated musical.
The book calls for a cast of hundreds — from Broadway chorines to the U.S. Navy fleet berthed in New York Harbor — and it’s a hoot to think that the illusion is carried off by six very hard-working performers.
Ruby’s got to have a sisterly best friend to wise her up and teach her the ropes, and big-hearted Joan (Mara Davi, rocking this role) could be Joan Blondell in the flesh. This triple threat singer-dancer-performer also gets to wear the cutest pair of tap-pants in the show.
Costumer David C. Woolard dresses everyone in appropriate flapper style — everyone, that is, but poor Ruby. Joan has her darling tap-pants. Mona has her diva wardrobe. Even the sailors have their tight-bottomed sailor pants. But the pallid prints and square-necked frocks that Ruby is forced to wear do nothing for Kropp. With so much hanging on the shoulders of a newbie leading lady, the kid should at least have some pretty frocks to wear.