By Robert Heide
A new Broadway production of Dames at Sea opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Thursday, October 22. This is a milestone in theater history since it first was produced off-off Broadway in Greenwich Village at the Caffe Cino Coffee-house Theater under the title Dames at Sea or Golddiggers Afloat, opening on May 19, 1966.
With a book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and with music by Jim Wise, it was based on the 1930s Busby Berkeley black and white movie-musical extravaganzas like 42nd Street, Dames, Footlight Parade and the popular Golddiggers film series of 1933, 1935, and 1937. The star turns in these fantasy Depression era movies were Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, both of whom created a sensation not to mention a sense of joy and relief in that gloomy decade of unemployment, breadlines, and bank failures.
The new musical version of Dames at Sea features only six tap dancing-singing performers, John Bolton, Mara Davi, Danny Gardner, Eloise Kropp, Lesli Margherita, and Cary Tedder, who seem to be having the time of their life singing the sparkling Depression-style songs like Wall Street, Choo Choo Honeymoon, Good Times Are Here to Stay, the captivating Broadway Baby and the title song Dames at Sea.
The original stars at the legendary Caffe Cino were Bernadette Peters as ‘Ruby,’ who at age 16 in her first role broke your heart with tears in her eyes singing Raining in My Heart. A young tall handsome David Christmas as the sailor of her dreams was, of course, named ‘Dick’ after film star Dick Powell. Under the amazing direction of Robert Dahdah, who had previously directed my play The Bed at the Caffe Cino in 1965, I must have seen this top-notch production over a dozen times, with a cup of cappuccino in my hand, sometimes with a provolone and pimento sandwich.
Ultimately, this mini-musical with Peters and Christmas in the leads was moved intact off-off Broadway to the Bowery Lane Theater where it had a long run. Sadly, because of some kind of a feud, Dahdah was not invited into this move as the official director although many who saw it maintained that very little of the original Dahdah directed production had changed. Dahdah, however, with actress Mary Boylan went on to write his own 1930s style musical called Curly McDimple which featured Bernadette Peters as the Alice Faye character. This had a substantial off-off Broadway run.
The new firecracker Broadway show sometimes misses the simplicity and charm of the original production, and Eloise Kropp as Ruby in a tight marcelled brown wig looks and acts more like a hard-boiled Eleanor Powell than the wide-eyed Ruby Keeler or Bernadette. Randy Skinner, who has directed and choreographed this new interpretation, decided to create a more fast-paced tap-tap-tap-all-the-way aggressive-show-biz type of entertainment.
But no matter this is still a helluva show with terrific sets and happy-go-lucky bounce. At an audience talk-back after the show Mr. Skinner mentioned that under the wigs and planted on the tap shoes as well are microphones; this big sound, one guesses, is what Broadway musicals are now all about. The two sailor boys do great tap routines but their singing cannot match Dick Powell or the Cino original David Christmas. The songs here are still most remarkable and with that in mind I would say—Go See!
Somewhere, in my own memory-recall watching the show I could not seem to forget the original. An usher handing out programs told me they are all hoping Bernadette Peters will show up; and I can’t help but wonder what she might think.