With “42nd Street” back on Broadway and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a spoof tuner along similar lines, also setting up shop on the street, it seems an apt moment to take another look at the campy 1968 Off Broadway mini-musical “Dames at Sea,” itself an affectionate spoof of ’30s movie musicals. But maybe because it’s no longer spoofing or tapping alone, and also thanks to an overblown Goodspeed Musicals production, “Dames at Sea” has lost some of its original postage-stamp charm.
Its pastiche score, which steals shamelessly from the likes of Gershwin, Porter et al., is genuinely tuneful and funny. And there are comical moments in director-choreographer Scott Thompson’s production, not least in the “Echo Waltz,” in which two goats appliqued onto the Alps backdrop join in the singing. But elsewhere, less would certainly be more in both the production values and the overly obvious direction and performances.
The cast at the Goodspeed remains the same size — just six performers playing seven characters and, when necessary, the show’s chorus. The pit band, however, has been augmented to eight, sounding at times like a brassy big band. This doesn’t necessarily help.
At the performance seen, the opening number, “Wall Street,” by the show-within-the-show’s star, Mona Kent (Corinne Melancon), suffered because the sound balance favored the pit musicians to the point of drowning out her singing (the cast wears head mikes for this production; the balance was eventually rectified). Another problem: projections so dim they were essentially meaningless.
Thompson has his cast tapping, singing and acting their hearts out to the resistance-level point. In addition, though the cast is never less than sturdily competent, it doesn’t project much individuality or glamour. Wisely, Ruby (Andrea Chamberlain) isn’t asked to emulate Bernadette Peters, who created the role 34 years ago. Instead, she’s a Keeler copy, which is as it should be, given the plot: Ruby has just arrived in New York from Utah with only her tap shoes in her lost suitcase, and is destined to be a Broadway star on a battleship by the end of the day when Mona, “the Lady Macbeth of 42nd Street,” gets seasick. Kewpie doll Chamberlain is more than OK, though without making any indelible impression. Ditto the rest of the cast, with perhaps David Engel having the best of it as the coy battleship captain Mona seduced years before.
The sets — art deco stage-within-a-stage for act one, battleship within the art deco false proscenium for act two — tend to be a mite overdone, as do some of the costumes. The moral of this 2002 season Goodspeed opener is that “Dames at Sea” is so obviously a spoof that audiences don’t have to be constantly hit over the heads by the fact. And, without doubt, shoestring intimacy is an integral part of the concept of the show and shouldn’t be tampered with.