Setting Sail into the 1930s

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Dames at Sea

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The musical Dames at Sea first opened in 1966 and earned strong reviews. It was a pretty good musical. The play is a spoof of 1930s movie musicals and in the 1960s people remembered them fondly. They connected. They knew who Cole Porter, Dolores Del Rio, Elsa Maxwell and Al Jolson were. Many of them grew up in the Depression. The play about the wide-eyed country girl who comes to New York to sing and dance her way on to the stage in a musical about ships worked and worked well.

Today, though, Dames at Sea needs a high tide to keep itself afloat.

The musical, that just opened at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York, is still a superb spoof, still filled with great dance numbers and still exudes a happy giddiness and eternal optimism. Little Ruby still is lovable as the innocent girl who wins the hearts of good old New York. She still goes out on that stage as a nobody and come back a star. There is hope for all of us yet, no matter how many dark clouds hover above us in the 2015 horizon. It is still a charmer.

But it needs to paddle, and fast. The problem is not the show, but the audience. 2015 is a very different world than 1966. What worked then does not work now. All these years later, Dames at Sea has a rusty anchor.

It has been eighty years since film director Busy Berkeley’s movie musicals of the early 1930s. Who remembers him? Most young people today probably think he is the lead singer in a new heavy metal band – Busy Berkeley and the Electro Heads.

The story line is simple: rural hick Ruby (played nicely by the talented Eloise Kropp), jumps off a a bus from the sticks and tries to gain a spot in the chorus line of a Broadway musical apparently about cruise liners about to open. A sailor from a docked ship, Dick (Cary Tedder), meets Ruby and falls in love with her. The show’s star falls for Dick when she finds out he is a songwriter and can bring back her glory days. At the end of act one, all learn that the show, set on a ship. is going to close but maybe the Navy can help save it.

The formula was embraced in 1966, but is hard to grasp now. The play goes song and dance crazy, too. It has too many tunes and everybody seems to be dancing just about non-stop. It would put the television show "Dancing with the Stars" to shame. Doesn’t anybody need to take a deep breath?

There is a lot of 1930s nostalgia in the show. The play starts out with a huge 1930s title movie card that covers the screen. It is pulled away and you are looking at the back of a 1930s theater. Men and women walk around in 1930s clothes.

Historically, the 1930s was the glory decade for elegant cruise ships like the Queen Mary and other vessels, that carried thousands of passengers across the Atlantic and around the world. Airlines were still in their infancy and elegant ships were the way to travel. Ocean Liners had ballrooms, numerous four star restaurants, theaters where large orchestras played, casinos, indoor and outdoor swimming pools. All the movie stars sailed on them as they went around the globe to make their films. Passengers were treated just as well as they were on land in four star hotels. The ships docked at exotic ports in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and crossed all the oceans of the world. The 1930s ships provided passengers with a floating world unto itself, dances on the deck, singers in the lounges, card games and receptions, champagne until dawn. Dames at Sea might have touched a bit more on that history since it was set in the 1930s and audiences would have had a nice historic glimpse of a golden era of travel (remember the Love Boat TV series?).

Dames at Sea’s book and lyrics are by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller. The music is by Jim Wise. The dance arrangements are by Rob Berman. The show is directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner.

Director Skinner gets fine work from all in the cast, including Lesli Margherita, John Bolton as stage director Hennesey and the navy captain, Mara Davi as the effervescent dancer Joan, Danny Garnder as Lucky.

The play has some grand old songs, such as It’s You, Broadway Baby, and There’s Something About You. The dancing is first rate. The play is just a bit out of date, that’s all, a treasure but an unneeded one. Throw it a life preserver.

PRODUCTION: The show is produced by the Infinity Theatre Company. Scenic Design: Ana Luizos Costumes: David C. Woolard, Sound: Scott Lehrer, Lighting: Ken Billington/Jason Kantrowitz, Music Supervisor: Rob Berman. The musical was choreographed and directed by Randy Skinner. The play has an open ended run.

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