No one ever said it's easy to find your sea legs. For proof, you need look no further than the Jean Cocteau Repertory's woozy new production of Dames at Sea; it just opened at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, where the original production opened almost 36 years ago. If you plan to take in this show, either consider waiting until it finds its footing, or bring seasickness pills.
The problems with this production cannot be easily attributed to the material - the book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and the music by Jim Wise adroitly capture the feel of the 1930s movie musical genre to which Dames at Sea is supposed to pay an airy, affectionate tribute. As directed here by David Fuller, the evening is primarily a leaden and joyless one that serves as a sobering reminder that actors' hard work is only fun for audiences when it looks effortless.
From the first moments of this Dames at Sea, it doesn't. That's when Judith Jarosz - playing Broadway star Mona Kent, who's headlining in the show-within-the-show, also called Dames at See - arrives to sing "Wall Street," a toe-tapping paean to both New York and its famous Financial District. Jarosz's style is wrong, and she lacks both the voice and the charisma to set us at ease and immediately draw us into the show's world.
Things only begin picking up a few minutes later, when Utah lovely Ruby (Kathleen White) arrives at the show's theater, desperate for her first job dancing on Broadway. In a matter of moments, she makes friends with wise-cracking dancer Joan (Chrysten Peddie) and falls in love with innocent sailor Dick (Andy Meyers), and is well on her way to becoming the star of the show and the toast of New York. No one with an affinity for movie musicals - or who's seen 42nd Street onstage - needs to be told where this is going.
No matter, though - the show's formulaic nature is a big part of its charm. But so much of that is eviscerated in this staging, that most spiritual connections to the films starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are hard to come by. Only twice is the spirit of the source material effectively recalled: At the end of the first act, when the brassy Peddie leads the company in the keep-up-your-spirits number "Good Times Are Here to Stay"; and in the second act's "Raining in My Heart," in which Ruby frets over Dick while choreographer Barbara Brandt channels Busby Berkeley to create a number laden with umbrellas, glittery rain drops, and irresistible appeal.
Almost nothing else comes to life. With the exception of Peddie, whose wide smile and big voice are never misplaced, the performers don't make much of an impression: White is a fine enough actor and singer, but not the top-caliber performer the role - which was originated by Bernadette Peters - requires; Meyers is highly likable, but is a bit out of his depth musically; Joey Stocks, playing Dick's sailor friend Lucky, generally confines his acting (and singing) to the production of goofy faces; and Campbell Bridges, playing the show's director on land and the captain of the naval vessel on which it eventually ends up, gives a broad, unfocused portrayal.
It's easy enough to forgive the physical production - it probably had to be low budget, but scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz and costume designer Joanne Haas at least infuse their creations with a lively Technicolor sensibility that seems right. (The lighting design, also fine, is by Giles Hogya.) Matt Castle's musical direction is also fine, and the show sounds fine as played by a sole piano.
It's much more difficult to overlook the lack of energy and fun that Fuller and company bring to the proceedings; if this production is never exactly dreary, nor is it ever the buoyant, light-hearted romp it should be. It's possible that, over the run of the show, the cast members might let themselves go and unlock some of the spirit that's so vibrantly inherent in this material, but that hasn't happened yet.
In the current theatrical climate, Dames at Sea demonstrates how gently ribbing movie adaptations can be constructed creatively, and anyone attempting further film musicalizations for production should definitely be aware of how Haimsohn, Miller, and Wise did it. Unfortunately, this production of Dames at Sea serves as little more than a reminder of how important it really is to get such adaptations right.
Jean Cocteau Repertory