S.O.S., Dames at Sea
Cottage Theatre astride the vasty deep
by Rick Levin
The song that opens George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s 1966 Dames at Sea is a tongue-in-cheek paean to the glories of New York’s fabled financial district. As belted out by the musical’s unabashed material girl Mona Kent (Nikki Pagniano), “Wall Street” revels in the promise of piles of cash while turning a scornful, suspicious eye on Broadway and “its tawdry ways.”
Granted, in terms of time and geography, Cottage Theatre’s latest production couldn’t be further removed from the Bazooka Joes, Bowery bums and lavish Busby Berkeley set pieces Dames is meant to parody. Nonetheless, there is a queasy, dislocating shock of recognition in beholding the post-Flapper, pre-Crash sentiments of conspicuous consumption and rampant speculation on parade in the Dames opening number, like watching a building burn in reverse. The notion that we moderns — with our cashed-out CEOs, burst housing bubbles and rampant unemployment — are doomed to pay time and again for the sins of Wall Street would seem to make this musical an intriguing choice right now. You’d think.
Unfortunately, director Janet Rust chooses not to wield the double-edged satire offered by Haimsohn and Miller’s book, opting instead to play things a bit too straight and safe. The show is pleasant enough with some fine moments, strong choreography and a second act that picks up a nice head of steam. Overall, though, Dames lacks any real spirit of adventure or daring, and this gives the proceedings a slightly seasick feeling of being cut adrift in an ocean of misplaced nostalgia.
Rust all but excuses the production’s lack of bite in her director’s note, which reads like a love letter with its inventory of past productions and personal journeys, and even executive director Susan Goes pumps up Dames’ “sit-back-and-relax-and-tap-your-toes” element of fun. Fun is fine. If they’ve missed the boat on relevance, chalk it up to an opportunity lost. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a bit of escapism. And, at times, the musical — with its rags-to-riches story about a small-town girl, Ruby (a strong-voiced Melissa Miller), who becomes an understudy to the scheming diva Mona, both of them vying for the attentions of the talented sailor/songwriter Dick (Joe Ortis) as well as the lead role in the musical-within-the-musical — does achieve a happy buoyancy. Anyone with a taste for the comic romps of Berkeley or Noel Coward will appreciate all the familiar elements on display in Dames: physical humor, goofy banter, sexual innuendo, innocence lost and romance found, all boosted by catchy tunes (by Jim Wise) and lavish dance pieces. Especially strong is the orchestra, directed and conducted by Catricia Mayhue-Gill; crammed into the pit like so much ballast, this small crew performs each number with freewheeling confidence and an aura of Roosevelt-era authenticity.
Such authenticity doesn’t always extend to the performances, especially among the younger members of the cast, some of whom appear a bit cowed or frightened by the exotic material of 20th-century Broadway. This is forgivable, considering the show features a number of theatrical arts perhaps lost on the newer generations — such as tap dancing, physical comedy and the well-timed double-entendre, not to mention the exaggerated inflections and gee-willickers Brooklynese of much theater from the ’30s and ’40s. Forgivable and, one would think, correctible. If acting is indeed partly imitation, it may behoove Rust to assign her cast a little homework. I would send everyone home with a DVD of Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Gang’s All Here. An invigorating dose of the song-and-dance genius of a young Jimmy Cagney, coupled with Carmen Miranda and her dancing bananas, might provide just the sizzle and pop Dames at Sea needs to reach its toe-tapping goals.
A handful of actors tackle the material with a saving sense of confidence. As Mona, Pagniano gives a wry, winking performance that tends to right the ship whenever Dames finds itself foundering in strange waters. With her powerful vocals and devilish conniving, she seems to know exactly where she is, and why, at all times. In the role of the clownish Lucky, Dylan Ferguson brings to mind the loose-limbed antics of Art Carney. Miller, who has a lovely voice and a light touch as an actor, makes for a believable Ruby, and Tony Rust does a good job in the dual roles of the foundering director Hennesey and Captain Courageous. If these actors, along with Rust, could get everybody else on board, Dames could truly set sail.
Dames at Sea continues through Feb. 14 at Cottage Theatre. Tix at cottagetheatre.org or (541) 942-8001