Dames at Sea is an affectionate homage to frothy ‘a star is born’ 1930s musicals, a cross between 42nd Street, Anything Goes and On The Town. It premiered off-Broadway in 1966 starring a very young Bernadette Peters (who was herself a last-minute replacement). Jim Wise’s score is sprightly and tuneful, while George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s lyrics and book are playfully knowing and referential, without being in the least bit cynical. The story of an unknown dancer, who goes out on the poop deck a chorus girl and comes back a star and the new sweetheart to the US Navy, is presented with exquisite style and humour in Kirk Jameson’s production at the Union Theatre, with a sweetness rarely equalled by West End extravaganzas.
Our plucky heroine Ruby (named after 42nd Street’s star Ruby Keeler) arrives in New York from Utah with only a worn pair of tap shoes to her name; she lands a chorus line spot replacing a girl who has eloped with a rich patron, and promptly faints in the arms of song writing sailor Dick, who happens to be from the same tiny town in Utah. To Ruby’s jealousy, Dick finds himself preyed upon by the star of the show Mona Kent, the legendary “Lady Macbeth of 42nd Street”. When the theatre is bulldozed to make way for a roller skating rink during the dress rehearsal, the show is relocated to the battleship where Dick is stationed, and it transpires that Mona isn’t a good sailor. No setback is too intimidating for this team – when the chorus boys sink, the sailors line up to audition.
The entire cast is a joy: Gemma Sutton is kittenish and apple-cheeked as Ruby, with a delightful voice, touching vulnerability and the wholesome sensuality of a Betty Grable or Alice Faye. She’s well paired with the sweet Daniel Bartlett (in his professional debut) as her love interest. Catriana Sandison displays great verve and powerful pipes as Ruby’s more worldly friend Joan, and has an engaging rapport with Alan Hunter as her on-off sailor boyfriend, Lucky. The Phantom of the Opera’s original Carlotta Rosemary Ashe is a hybrid of Ethel Merman and Bette Davis, making an indomitable diva who stops at nothing to stay the top. There’s fun character work from Anthony Wise as the show’s harassed director and Ian Mowat as Mona’s old flame Captain ‘Kewpie Doll’ Courageous, and the ensemble are charming.
Drew McOnie’s choreography is a witty delight, including a wistful dream sequence for Ruby, a dramatic Latin-flavoured number as Mona and the Captain renew their acquaintance and even a bit of synchronised swimming in the Union’s confines. The chaotic backstage area is characterised by an array of trunks and crates and a curtain of $100 bills (by Kingsley Hall, who also provides the vibrant costumes – his first design credit). Steve Miller’s lighting is amongst the most creative I’ve ever seen in a fringe show and the twin pianos (MD Richard Bates) are jauntily played.
This is perfect summer feel-good theatre that made me smile and laugh throughout (though the ‘Oriental’ ‘Singapore Sue’ number could be eliminated…). Pastiche can often pale in comparison to the real thing, but this production is an irresistible slice of fun that showcases everything that is good about fringe musicals.
Dames at Sea plays at the Union Theatre until August 20th. For more information and tickets, please click here.