Dames at Sea [Union Theatre]

Dames at Sea
A musical pastiche of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with book & lyrics by George Haimsohn & Robin Miller, music by Jim Wise

Mona Kent – Rosemary Ashe
Joan – Catriana Sandison
Harry Hennesey – Anthony Wise
Ruby – Gemma Sutton
Dick – Daniel Bartlett
Lucky – Alan Hunter
Captain Courageous – Ian Mowat
Sailors – Matt Gillet (dance captain), Jonny Godbold & Joshua Tonks
Dames – Natalie Kent (dance captain), Meg Gallagher & Sasi Strallen

Kirk Jameson – Director
Sasha Regan – Producer
Richard Bates – Musical Director & Pianist
Drew McOnie – Choreographer
Kingsley Hall – Designer & Costume Maker
Steve Miller – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 13 August, 2011
Venue: Union Theatre, Southwark, London SE1

The pastiche musical is a hard one to bring off successfully. Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, a send-up of the 1920s-style musical and its ilk, is the most successful ever and has played somewhere in the world since it opened sixty years ago. It began as a simple entertainment for members of the Players’ Theatre in Charing Cross and then ran in London for over two-thousand performances and subsequently did very well on Broadway (with Julie Andrews), running for nearly five-hundred performances from 1954. Four years later a revival clocked up 750 or more shows.

What the British Boy Friend does for the Twenties musical, the American Dames at Sea does for the 1930s’ Hollywood musical movie, in particular the Warner Bros’ Gold Diggers series, with all that kaleidoscopic choreography by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Again, like Sandy Wilson’s show, it started small, in New York in 1966 as Dames at Sea – or Gold Diggers Afloat at a tiny café-theatre space in Greenwich Village – with the young Bernadette Peters. Success saw it moving to a proper theatre where it ran for nearly 600 performances. Since then it has enjoyed revivals, a television version with Ann-Margret and Ann Miller, and it came to London in 1969 for about four months. Since then the real thing, that is the film of 42nd Street, was turned into a stage musical using the songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and ran for nigh on 3,500 performances and repeated its success around the world.

The story of 42nd Street forms the basis of Dames at Sea, the only difference being the scale of the production. The former has a huge cast of chorus girls and a full orchestra but Dames at Sea can be done with just half-a-dozen actors and a piano. The plot is the hoary old chestnut about the out-of-town ingénue coming to Broadway, getting picked for the chorus and ends up by taking over the leading role from the indisposed star. The songs by Wise, Haimsohn and Miller are perfect pastiches of songs of the period: ‘Wall Street’ is the answer to ’42nd Street’, ‘It’s you’ and ‘The sailor of my dreams’ are really ‘You’re getting to be a habit with me’ and ‘I only have eyes for you’, while ‘The echo waltz’ is alternative version of ‘The shadow waltz’.

The heroine Ruby (based on 42nd Street’s Ruby Keeler) joins the cast of a Broadway musical and immediately meets a song-writing sailor called Dick (yes, there are plenty of those jokes) who then encounters Mona Kent, the star of the show, who also takes a shine to him. However, when the hard-pressed producer/director (Warner Baxter in the film) announces that the theatre is going to be turned into a car lot and the show must close. What can they do? Along comes the ship’s captain, an old flame of Mona’s, and so they decide to do the show right there, on board ship. During rehearsals Mona gets seasick and guess who takes over … yes, little Ruby Sunshine. In the New York production the leading lady did fall sick and was replaced by Bernadette Peters … and she never looked back.

Kirk Jameson’s production for the Union Theatre plays it all tongue-in-chic with knowing nods to the audience but it’s a spirited production with some splendid choreography by Drew McOnie who fills the Union’s tiny space with some high-stepping strutting. Gemma Sutton’s Ruby is a delightful portrayal of unbridled but innocent ambition. Catriana Sandison as her fast-talking friend Joan (yes, the Joan Blondell quipster part in the film) is a real find, while their opposite numbers, sailors Dick (remember Dick Powell?) and Lucky (respectively Daniel Bartlett and Alan Hunter) are the perfectly innocent foils for the girls. Union veteran Anthony Wise makes Harry a fine but worn-out producer/director. Rosemary Ashe as the appalling Mona plays the part as Ethel Merman might have done – full on and out to the audience – in a great raucous, blousy, over the top bluster – she’s just wonderful in a pretty good albeit not classic show.

  • Dames at Sea is at Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 until Saturday 20 August 2011
  • Tuesday to Saturday 7.30 p.m., matinee Saturday 2.30
  • Tickets 020 7261 9876
  • Union Theatre

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