WINTER PARK — In their musical comedy “Dames At Sea,” writers George Haimsohn and Robin Miller demonstrate absolutely no anxiety about being hopelessly silly — or about reveling in as many aging, decrepit clichés as possible.
Their show opens in a theater in New York City, and it all has a very familiar feel. There’s Mona, the egotistical, pampered star of the show, who has no qualms about being eyes-clawing ruthless to get her way. The director, Hennesey, is as harried as they come; all his money has been sunk into this production, Mona constantly pushes him around, and one of his chorus girls just ran off with her boyfriend.
And then … in walks Ruby, a sweet young girl right off the bus from Utah, who spent her last dime travelling to New York because …. it’s her dream to become a big Broadway star. Hennesey rolls his eyes and warns her that showbiz is a cutthroat scene and she’d be better off heading right back home to Utah, but one of his good natured dancers, Joan, convinces him to at least give the poor girl an audition.
If it all sounds familiar, and if you’re watching this play being performed at The Winter Park Playhouse, you might be tempted to ask yourself, Haven’t I seen this one before?
The answer is a most definite Yes! — and that’s the point. Whether you prefer the word “tribute” or “homage,” the Haimsohn-Miller play (with music by Jim Wise) is a salute to the way that storytellers of an earlier generation tried to coax people out of their often challenging lives and revel in some light, airy fun.
“Dames at Sea” has a unique history, linked as it is to two of our nation’s most painful chapters. The play is a salute not to old theater shows, but rather to Hollywood — in particular the classic movie musicals made by director Busby Berkeley in the 1930s like “42nd Street.” It was during the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history, when Berkeley helped to sweep audiences away from their troubles through tales of sweet young girls like Ruby who head to Broadway, hoping to land a role in a hit musical that allows the entire world to see their great singing, dancing and acting talent.
“Dames at Sea” was created in 1968, one of the most turbulent years in U.S. history. The economy was strong, but the culture was being torn apart by the Vietnam War, the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, the civil rights movement and urban rioting, the bloody clashes between anti-war protestors and the Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention, and the rise of free love and drug experimentation that would lead to Richard Nixon’s pledge to restore law and order for the “silent majority.”
In the midst of all that, “Dames at Sea” takes its inspiration not just from Berkeley’s own musicals, but also his general concept: to keep it light and silly, to skip the politics and social commentary, and to allow audiences to simply forget all their troubles and have some good, old-fashioned fun.
“Dames At Sea” played Off-Off Broadway in 1968, and then seems to have been forgotten by history … until recently. The play will actually make its Broadway debut in October, but in the meantime The Winter Park Playhouse rediscovered it first.
And you might ask, if the play offers a salute to corny Hollywood musicals during the terrible depression, and got created in one of the most agonizing years in recent history, how does it hold up in a summer when the Central Florida economy appears to be booming and people are feeling far better about their lives?
Actually, the main concept holds up nicely: namely, honey, remember — Shakespeare, it ain’t, but if you’re in the mood for a production not at all afraid of being downright goofy, it should leave you smiling by the end.
There is, of course, the Playhouse’s usual skill at finding great singing and comedic talent; both of the Playhouse’s founders, Heather Alexander and Roy Alan, bring their rich talent to the roles of Joan and Lucky, a sailor whose friend and colleague Dick wants to be the next great songwriter. And both Molly Jackson and Brian Wettstein are ideal as the wide-eyed, innocent and happy-go-lucky theater hopefuls Ruby and Dick.
But the real gems in “Dames At Sea” are the reunited Broadway stars David Thome, who plays Hennesey, and Jan Leigh Herndon, deliciously good as Mona. They first met in the 1980s performing in “A Chorus Line,” and they’re an absolute delight in this production. Herndon’s comedic timing, even with tiny throwaway lines, is a marvel to watch.
“Dames at Sea” is anything but sophisticated writing — and one of the songs, “Singapore Sue,” is not exactly going to win any politically correct awards by today’s standards. But rather than be a production that takes us away from our worldly troubles, as it probably hoped to do in 1968, “Dames at Sea” is instead an ideal summer production — a big laugh-out-loud moment here, a groan there, and the sheer joy of watching two Broadway veterans electrify a stage even with a feather-light script. It’s a lot of fun.
“Dames at Sea” is being performed at the theater at 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park now through Aug. 22. Call 407-645-0145 for tickets and reservations.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..