In the 1960s, the idea of sending up popular culture was so fresh it could still be considered daring — “Monster Mash” was a Top 10 Halloween hit in 1962 and Batman was on TV in 1966, the same year Hal Prince and the Bye Bye Birdie team of Lee Adams and Charles Strouse struck out with It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane… It’s Superman. Way off Broadway at Caffé Cino, a tiny venue on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village that more typically presented genre-busting playwrights like Edward Albee and Sam Shepard, the musical Dames At Sea opened the floodgates of camp (and in 1968 moved to a long off-broadway run). It was an affectionate send-up (neither spoof nor satire) of the Depression Era films of Busby Berkeley; indeed, the subtitle was “Golddiggers Afloat.”
The show closely followed the outline of 42nd Street, in which a naive kid from the sticks stumbles into a birthing Broadway show, joins the chorus and by force of talent, will, an indisposed diva and a desperate director, becomes a star on opening night. In the case of Dames At Sea, the twist involved the addition of one more challenge: The theater where it’s taking place is suddenly being demolished, leaving the enterprising troupe no choice but to transfer the whole business to a battleship at anchor.
The likable score by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller (book and lyrics) and Jim Wise (music) cleverly imitates the songsmiths of the era, from Harry Warren and Al Dubin to the Gershwins and Jerome Kern. They weren’t subtle: Listen to “The Beguine” and you might easily mistake it for Cole Porter’s rumination on the same theme. (Stephen Sondheim would do something similar a few years later in the pastiche score of Follies, though on a considerably higher level.)
Caffé Cino was approximately the size of a handkerchief, which was just right for its energetic cast of six, which — most helpfully for the show’s own creation myth — accidentally included the very young Bernadette Peters, who actually did go out there a chorus girl and come back a star.
The revival of Dames At Sea that opened on Broadway Thursday night is a lot of fun and a tribute to the city’s inexhaustible pool of inexhaustible talent, if not actual stars. In the District’s smallest house, recently acquired by the Second Stage nonprofit company but not yet rehabbed, the fit is just right for Anna Louizos’ humorous sets and the company of six, which includes a dazzling tapper named Eloise Kropp as Ruby, the ingenue. She’s nicely partnered by Cary Tedder as the sailor who falls for Ruby. Randy Skinner is the director and choreographer, and by the end of the show you’ll be praying that these hoofers have shock absorbers for joints, because the pounding is relentless (and for a tapdance lover like me, exhilarating):
Unlike 1966, however, Broadway today is awash in nostalgia in the form of revivals, “revisals,” makeovers, reboots and parodies, all done on a far larger scale and offering considerably more bang, or tap, for the buck. And good as they are, simpatico as they are, the dancers of Dames At Sea never let us forget just how hard they’re working to please us. They’re working very, very hard, bless ’em.