Dames at Sea is a spoof of a spoof. Sounds complicated, but it's not. To get in the swing of things, it helps to think of Gilbert and Sullivan. I don't know what their hilariously saccharine "three little maids from school" were spoofing, for instance, but it must have been something. Much of the fun of Gilbert and Sullivan seems to spring from what you might call "spoofing."
The point is, you don't have to know what's being spoofed to enjoy the fun. Dames at Sea, recently performed at Tulane, is generally touted as poking gentle fun at early Hollywood musicals. While the show's not likely to last the way The Mikado has, it still offers enjoyment -- some 40 years since it first hit Broadway.
In fact, Broadway is what Dames is about -- the Great White Way back in the '30s when it was the epitome of glamour. This is a backstage drama told with tongue so firmly in the cheek that you wonder how the characters can sing. Sing they do, however, and dance, dance, dance. The young cast (who ranged from freshmen to post-grads) did both with a verve and a poise beyond their years.
Well, here's the setup. Hennesey (Jason Noah), a producer/director, has had a string of flops. He's hoping to recoup his fortunes with a new hit, which opens tomorrow. We're watching the final rehearsal. Michael Howard, who also directed, is playing the rehearsal piano. In fact Howard accompanies the entire show.
This honing down to essentials is typical of the staging. Dames is performed on a bare stage. There could have been a great deal of scenery (seven tons, as Hennesey says at one point), but we don't miss it one damn bit. The second act, for instance, takes place on the deck of a battleship. Imagine the big guns, the railings, etc. Distraction, in short. Plus, of course, every device you add is an invitation for disaster.
But back to the story. Naturally, since we are on Broadway, we have to have a star. The diva of the day is Mona Kent (Jocelyn Buckley), and just as planets revolve around the sun, divas have tantrums over billing. She wants her name bigger. Gigantic!
Who comes into the theater next? Why, a young gal from Centerville, Utah, who is determined to become a Broadway star. This naive wannabe named Ruby (Tessa Johnson) is taken under the wing of Joan (Katie Howe), a saucy chorus girl with platinum curls and plenty of attitude. It just so happens that one of the other chorus girls has run off on a romantic adventure, so Ruby is hired on the spot. To keep things realistic, she is given a chance to show she can pick up a dance from Joan. She does so, perfectly, in about 30 seconds.
Just then, a sailor bursts into the theater. He has the teeny suitcase Ruby left at the bus station. One look and these two are in love. They're an ideal match, too, because Dick, the sailor (Brian Bell), is also from Centerville, Utah, and he's an aspiring songwriter. When left alone, he even improvises a song in honor of his new love.
Complications soon set in, however. Mona, the diva, enters looking every inch a star and starts putting the moves on the sailor. Her main tactic is praising his songs, which she says she will feature in the play.
Ominous off-stage noises introduce a bigger threat to everyone's happiness (and livelihood); the WPA is demolishing the theater to make way for a roller rink. Dames will not be able to open.
At the end of the first act, the sailors come up with a solution. Why not move the play to their battleship?
Needless to say, the Dames really do end up at sea, where the diva comes down with sea sickness and can't go on. See if you can guess who goes on in her place -- even though she doesn't know the music or the routines.
So love triumphs and not just love: The American Dream, or rather the American fantasy -- total success, raining down on the good guys, like manna from heaven.
Anything less is -- by implication -- failure, of course. But hey, fella, put down that bottle of booze. This is a just spoof of a spoof. Got that.
Congratulations to one and all of the 15-member cast for a tuneful romp full of silliness, soaring voices and happy feet.
- Michael Strecker
- Tulane's Michael Howard directed a student production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Dames at Sea