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The high-flying 1968 Broadway musical Dames at Sea — an affectionate parody of the gala 1930s motion-picture musical extravaganzas directed by Busby Berkeley and starring Fred Astaire, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers — will open Sept. 12 and play through Oct. 5 in Raleigh Little Theatre's Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre. This vivacious backstage musical, with book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise, debuted Off-Broadway at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre on December 20, 1968, and ran for 575 performances.
"I first saw this play at The Theatre De Lys in New York City either late in 1969 or early in 1970," recalls RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons. "It still had the young Bernadette Peters in the role of Ruby. To say she was incandescent would be an understatement."
Fitz-Simons says, "The musical movies of the 1930s were very influential to me. This hilarious satire of the movies of Busby Berkeley [1895-1976] and Fred [Astaire, 1899-1987] and Ginger [Rodgers, 1911-95] really strikes a chord. The script is beautifully written with lots of humor and style. The songs are engagingly reminiscent of the ballads and foxtrots of the period. Perhaps the most fun comes from performing a Busby Berkeley-type musical with a total cast of six performers!
"As the play opens, backstage at the Hippodrome Theatre on 42nd Street in NYC," Fitz-Simons says, "feverish rehearsals are taking place in preparation for an under-rehearsed opening of Dames at Sea, a Busby Berkeley-style musical. The curtain rises on leading lady Mona Kent's (Aime Davidson) rendition of 'Wall Street,' one of those major/minor upbeat tap numbers of the era. Into this mix pops up a jejune naïf named Ruby (Susan Durham-Lozaw), just off the bus from Centerville, Utah, and looking for a job in a Broadway play. She has been followed from the bus station by a young sailor, her childhood sweetheart Dick (Jamey Benson)."
Fitz-Simons says, "Dick has aspirations to become a singer-songwriter and his talents are immediately apparent to the voracious Mona, who takes him on as a protégé (much to Ruby's dismay). Dick's sailor buddy, Lucky (Alan Seales), shows up and hooks up with his old flame, the wise-cracking chorine Joan (Blair Byrd). As rehearsals progress, it becomes apparent that the highly-strung theater director, Harry Hennesy (Brent Wilson), is hiding something from his cast: the theater is literally being torn down by the W.P.A. [the federal Works Progress Administration] to accommodate the building of a new roller rink. The first act ends in a frenzy of 'New Deal'-type optimism as the theater literally falls around their ears.
"The second act opens on board a battleship anchored in New York Harbor," says Fitz-Simons. "Dick and Lucky have proposed their ship as a possible venue for the displaced production. There chances improve when we learn that their Captain (Brent Wilson) has had a romantic 'past' with Mona. In a torrid 'beguine,' they relive their past and set off some new sparks … enough, at any rate, to secure the Captain's approval for moving the production onboard. In the meantime, Ruby has seen Mona and Dick in what appears to be a 'compromising position.' She is about to leave the ship and the production when Mona succumbs to sea sickness and Ruby must take her place at short notice as the star of the show! (Sound familiar?) All ends well as the huge production number goes off without a hitch, and all the couples find themselves appropriately mated for a matrimonial finale."
The RLT presentation of Dames at Sea — which director Haskell Fitz-Simons describes as "Lovely fluff and pure entertainment!" — features a highly talented production team that includes set and lighting designer Rick Young and costume designer Vicki Olson. (Fitz-Simons doubles as sound designer.)
"Doing a tap show with six people doesn't leave much room for 'creative camouflage,'" Fitz-Simons admits. "There are a slew of super-fast quick changes which certainly have proved a challenge for our costume crew. The double venue (with one that self-destructs!) has proved a challenge to our scenic department."
In reviewing the original (1968) production of Dames at Sea, Clive Barnes of The New York Times called the show "a real winner, a little gem of a musical." The New York Post described Dames at Sea as "a loving spoof... every gesture is witty; every cliché — and there are a thousand — is fine, honed and exactly chosen."
Raleigh Little Theatre presents Dames at Sea Friday-Saturday, Sept. 12-13, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 14, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 17-20 and 24-27 and Oct. 1-4, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Sept. 21 and 28 and Oct. 5, at 3 p.m. in RLT's Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $20 Friday-Saturday, $17 Thursday and Sunday, $13 Wednesday, $11 Sunday matinee for students and seniors, and $5 Thursday Night Rush (NOTE: Tickets must be bought on the day of the performance). 919/821-3111. http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/dames.htm [inactive 6/04]. Note 1: All performances are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all performances. Note 2: RLT will provide audio description for those with visual disabilities at the Sept. 21 Sunday matinee.