A New York setting of yesteryear makes for a welcome comedic escape
Dames at Sea is a confection of a musical -- nothing more than a lighter-than-air sweet treat without an ounce of edification to be found.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
True, you can't live on a steady diet of such creations. But when it's pulled off with the kind of effortless skill and flair on display now at Olney Theatre Center, Dames at Sea is definitely an indulgence you can afford and, in fact, the kind of pleasure you all but owe yourself in today's gloom-and-doom world.
It's the same sense of escapism that drove Great Depression-era Hollywood musicals, the genre spoofed by Dames at Sea. And perhaps it was a desire to escape from the turbulent late-1960s that drove Dames itself, moreso than the actual spoof factor, considering that it made its Off-Broadway premiere in 1968, running for two years with its frothy tale of a fresh-off-the-bus Utah hoofer, Ruby, who arrives in 1930s New York and finds herself starring in a Broadway show by the end of the day. George Haimsohn and Robin Miller's book is sprinkled with songs by Jim Wise, with Haimsohn and Miller as lyricists, such as "Choo-Choo Honeymoon," "The Beguine" and "Raining in My Heart" that play directly off of famous standards.
As Ruby, a role originated by Bernadette Peters in her New York stage debut, Megan Touey is Olney's ingénue du jour. She's a real delight, bringing a solid singing voice and physical grace to the character, as well a radiant innocence and fine sense of timing to support Ruby's wide-eyed view of the world. Haimsohn and Miller also place much responsibility on Ruby to deliver a wealth of good-spirited innuendo without overplaying her hand, and Touey responds to such comedic demands beautifully.
Sol Baird has a similar row to hoe as Dick, a young sailor-turned-songwriter who's working on the same show in which Ruby is getting her big break. Baird, too, sings and moves quite well, and stays on the right play-it-straight-and-subtle track to keep his character enjoyable.
Musical theatre powerhouse Sherri L. Edelen is right in her element as Joan, the wise-cracking, brassy chorine who's happy to see Ruby steal the spotlight from the show's star, the aging diva Mona (Deborah Tranelli). Edelen belts her way to musical comedy perfection, and is a joy to behold. As Lucky, Joan's loveable galoot of a boyfriend and a sailor pal of Dick's, Brad Bradley -- with a radiant voice and charming demeanor -- is exceptionally well-matched with Edelen.
Tranelli is an unabashed hoot as the tough-as-nails, divinely overwrought Mona. Like Edelen, she can belt a tune with ease, and she brings a razor-sharp comedic timing to her scenes. Jack Kyrieleison rounds out the cast with nice takes on the smaller roles of the producer Hennesey and the Captain of the battleship that becomes a substitute Broadway theatre when the show-within-the-show's original venue is felled by a wrecking ball to make way for a roller rink.
Director Dallett Norris has done an outstanding job with setting and maintaining the perfect whimsical tone throughout, and Ilona Kessell's clever, energetic choreography integrates seamlessly. It's all framed in well-executed cotton candy- and carnival-hued costumes by Dean Brown and Art Deco-style sets by James Fouchard that help keep Dames at Sea blissfully far away from the much dingier world we face outside the theatre.