Broadway is definitely a tourist filled town these days. Everything has to “sell” to the larger demographic, and appeal to the most common and random of theater-goers. One show this season that is attempting to hook the modern audience in is Dames at Sea, a musical that has had several Off-Broadway productions since its creation in 1966.
Dames tells the story of Ruby (Eloise Kropp), a fresh off the bus youngster, who steps onto The Great White Way and seems to “become a star” all within a span of 24 hours. But how she gets to that end point is one hilarious, 1930’s parody filled journey, with an endless amount of crazy characters that help her get to the top. There’s Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita)–the diva, there’s Joan (Mara Davi)–the sassy chorus girl–and her sweetheart, Dick (Cary Tedder). All of them, along with supportive players like The Captain and Lucky (played by John Bolton and Danny Gardner, respectively) show Ruby the highs and lows of show business–all while set amidst a debunked theater and a Navy ship.
You might be able to detect from that description that Dames really doesn’t have a plot, a fact that makes the show a hard sell. This type of story harkens back, with so much love and devotion, to a time where musicals were really not a showcase for storytelling, but strictly talent. And though that is all well and good, those kind of shows don’t sell like they did back in the 30’s and 40’s. We are now in an era dominated by the audience’s interest in the dramatic journey of its characters, where teenagers fall under the spell of Elphaba’s triumph, families flock to see Simba succeed, and couples tear up seeing the Phantom’s heartbreak. So what can Dames offer to this new post-Disney generation of theatergoers? Sadly, not much.
Now, I’m not saying that Dames isn’t a wonderful time at the theater–because in actuality, it is–but I will always be the first to say, I am not your typical audience member. My interests lie in pop culture history and movie buff factoids that run through my head on a 24/7 basis. So when Dames (written by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller) makes mention in its lyrics “It isn’t Jean Harlow, it isn’t Greta Garbo, it’s you, it’s you, it’s you,” I get it. Sadly, many of those sitting around me seemed to have much of the material fly over their heads, aside from the occasional chuckle, and applause for the cast.
In fact, Dames‘s greatest selling point is indeed its small yet dynamite ensemble. Kropp perfectly embodies the era–from her optimistic grin, to her “Betty Boop” styled voice, you can easily see why she was chosen to play Ruby, especially when it comes to her dancing feet. Davi effortlessly executes the role of Joan, bringing to life all of the gum chewing heroines that inspired the character, with the addition of Davi’s own special brand of sass and spunk. And Tedder, Bolton and Gardner fulfill their roles with adorable enthusiasm, particularly Bolton who is doing the best homage to Joe E. Brown from Some Like It Hot, it is almost uncanny.
But easily the standout among all those involved is Lesli Margherita. By God, is this woman a treasure, and she proves it from the moment the opening number begins. Her comedic timing is on point, to an almost scary degree, and her hypnotic control over the audience is a skill to be admired. With a little bit of Patti LuPone sprinkled in, mixed with all the divas of the time the show is placed in, Margherita clearly proves that she knows her stuff. It’s just a shame that the theatergoers she is performing for lack the same amount of knowledge.
To put simply, I really hope Dames finds the audience it clearly deserves. This is classic, toe-tapping musical comedy at its best, with a group of actors that truly are giving it their all at every performance. But, knowing the climate of today’s theater world, the question of how long Dames lifespan is remains to be seen. Until such an answer is given, I’ll remain quietly in the wings with my fingers crossed and a lot of hope in my heart. Dames at Sea is gonna need it, big time.
Dames at Sea is currently playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre.