Tuesday, July 10, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Dames at Sea" at North Coast REP

“Dames” Works Hard to Entertain:
North Coast REP pulls out all the stops in its tap-happy spoof of large and lavish movie musicals of the 1930’s

By Donnie Matsuda
Late in the second act of Dames at Sea, a young and impressionable chorus girl named Peggy Sawyer (I mean “Ruby”) must take the place of the show-within-a-show’s leading lady, Dorothy Brock (here named “Mona Kent”) after she falls and breaks her ankle (or rather, back).  As Ruby is forced to learn all of the show’s scenes, songs and choreography in a matter of hours, she’s told, “You’re going out on the poop deck a chorus girl, but you’ve got to come back a star!” 

(L to R): Jeffrey Scott Parsons, Roxane Carrasco and Luke Jacobs in "Dames at Sea" at North Coast REP.  Photo courtesy of Barron Henzel.
With a line and concept ripped (nearly) verbatim from the most tap-tacular of Broadway musicals, 42nd Street, it is clear that Dames at Sea exists merely to poke fun at the big, bold, tap-heavy tuners of the 1930’s.  And while it does an adequate job of capturing, perhaps even mocking, the carefree innocence and cheery optimism of the era, it doesn’t quite convey the spirit and savvy that made those mega-musicals sing and dance in the hearts of millions of theatre-goers in Depression-era America.  Perhaps part of the problem is the mediocre music by Jim Wise and the barely there book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller.  None of the shows fifteen musical numbers are very memorable (even the title number falls a bit flat) and the characters, while endearing and syrupy sweet, are so campy and cartoonish that they’re more distracting than they are funny. 

But thankfully, North Coast REP’s sprightly production rises above the mediocre material and veteran director Rick Simas does a bang up job of packaging the show’s silly seafaring shenanigans so that they come across as fresh, fun, and fancy free as they possibly can.  His top-notch, tap-tastic revival goes off without a hitch and doesn’t miss a beat as it powers through countless showy tap numbers with the command and buoyancy of the U.S. battleship on which it takes place.  And at the heart of his production are six powerhouse performers who are not only impressive triple threats, but ace tappers as well.

Sarah Errington as Ruby.  Photo courtesy of Barron Henzel.
At the helm is Sarah Errington as the naïve yet enthusiastic Ruby (a role that launched the career of Bernadette Peters back in the 1968 Off-Broadway production).  Errington plays the bright eyed and bushy tailed ingénue to a tee and has some powerful vocal and dancing chops to boot.  As her love interest, the singing, dancing, and song-writing sailor Dick (don’t all sailors tap dance and write upbeat melodies on the turn of a dime?), Jeffrey Scott Parsons is a joy to watch.  He has an effervescent charm and clean cut good looks that often belie his incredibly impressive song and dance abilities.  

Natalie Storrs (most recently seen as Rosemary in How to Succeed at the Welk) is a hoot as Joan as she snaps her gum and taps her toes as only a Brooklyn-born moll can.  And as her love interest Lucky, Luke Jacobs is innocent and sweet and the two of them play off each other marvelously.  Broadway veteran Roxane Carrasco is outstanding as the broadly comedic and overly pompous leading lady Mona Kent and Spencer Rowe is a standout as both Mr. Hennesey and The Captain.

The company of "Dames at Sea."  Photo courtesy of Barron Henzel.
Choreographer Susan Jordan-DeLeon and Tap Choreographer Lisa Hopkins (who recently choreographed Dames at Sea at The Colony Theatre in Burbank) have done incredible work here, bringing the show’s large production numbers to life on what is probably the narrowest of sets seen in recent NCR history (fortunately, set designer Marty Burnett opens things up a bit with his splashy and spacious ship deck in Act Two).  As is to be expected, the dancing stays true to the good old fashioned Broadway style of tap - including paddle and rolls, wings, maxi fords, syncopated pullbacks, and time steps a plenty – but it is performed with such precision and panache that it is truly exciting to watch.  The sailors Dick and Lucky even get entrenched in a tap-off in the Act Two opener in which they get to show off some fancy footwork that builds nicely into a full-cast show-stopping number.

So, while Dames at Sea may be a more modest and muted version of the mega-musicals of the 1930’s, it still exists as a lovely (and at times charming) valentine to the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas of the era.  And in the hands of a game and energetic cast, a stalwart director, and of course, a couple of ace choreographers, NCR’s production sails high and mighty in an exuberant revival.  So get your boarding pass now…it’s a nautical adventure you won’t want to miss!

Things to know before you go: Dames at Sea plays at North Coast Repertory Theatre through July 29, 2012.  Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm.  Tickets are $32-$52 with discounts available for students and military.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org.

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