Director Michael Vodde and the enthusiastic cast of American Heartland Theatre's Dames at Sea know exactly how to read the show -- as satirists who love what they're satirizing. Though the production seems underpopulated (what big Broadway spectacle has six people?), the key ingredients are there in Technicolor.
The bitchy star, Mona Kent (Lori Blalock), has a huge ego to match her self-doubt. The second female lead, Joan (Stephanie Nelson in a role named to salute the movies' great second banana, Joan Blondell), shoots zingers right back at the star and gives all the underlings inspiring pep talks, including one in which she tells Utah-bred ingenue Ruby (Meggie Censler) to "go back to the button counter at the five-and-dime" if she doesn't have the gristle for Broadway.
Three men play the four male characters. James Wright is the gravelly voiced director and, later, the easily seduced captain. The Gene Kelly-inspired sailors who stumble upon a Broadway rehearsal and happen to be able to dance like marionettes are embodied by Seth Golay and Greg Schanuel. Golay's character, Dick, even has the bankable hobby of writing great show tunes, which makes him especially attractive to Mona.
George Haimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise have written the show -- fifteen songs and a skeleton book -- without missing a cheesy plot turn. Ruby, for example, gets a part in the chorus before she even has a place to hang her hat. A few of the show-within-a-show's numbers are replaced by Dick's apparently superior compositions. And as the story winds its way toward opening night, Mona gets sick enough to let Ruby go on in her place. True to the show's complete disregard for believability and its sparkling fealty to plot conveniences, Ruby is not prepared at all but becomes a star.
Dames at Sea was written in the '60s (it made Bernadette Peters a star) and salutes movies of the '30s. Neither time was seen as particularly gracious to minorities, which is the only explanation for the song "Singapore Sue." The number clumps everybody of Asian descent under the offensive category "Oriental," employs terms like "chop suey" and "junk" and has the girls shuffling like geishas. Even as a send-up, the musty bit ought to be expendable in future productions.
The rest of the songs, backed up by musicians Anthony Edwards and Tod Barnard, are too silly to conjure up many feelings at all. "Choo-Choo Honeymoon" and "Raining in My Heart" (the requisite number with umbrellas and yellow slickers) are as thin as tinfoil but nonetheless well delivered and choreographed (by Vodde and Lesia Kaye). And when the voices and the hoofing are this flawless, it's easy to forget the show is making fun of the genre. That's entertainment.
The 45-minute presentation is a combination of history and musical numbers from the last century of American musicals. Written by local actor Kathleen Warfel, directed by Phil Keenan and funded with a $20,000 grant from the Theater League, it features four adult acting professionals and several students from the Paseo Academy of the Performing Arts. The key musicals, Keenan says, are "Rodgers and Hammerstein -- we talk a good deal about Oklahoma! and South Pacific -- and hit on Stephen Sondheim with pieces from West Side Story and Gypsy."
"We also address the changing world of the American musical theater in our culture, looking at it from the '30s and '40s, when it was seen as a form of entertainment and escapism, to the '60s and '70s, where it started to talk about social responsibility," adds Harlan Brownlee of Young Audiences. The show winds up a tour of Kansas City, Kansas, high schools this week.
That the show includes the anthem "Seasons of Love" from Rent can't hurt ticket sales when the Theater League brings that production back in June -- and getting young people into any theater is a good thing. "Our goal is to help them develop an interest in musical theater [and] to find and enhance a place for this art form in their lives," says Theater League president Mark Edelman.