As soon as you enter the auditorium of the Helen Hayes Theater and see that stunning art deco red curtain, you know you're in for something fun. The curtain rises on a movie-theater screen, and the credits roll as if you're about to see a B&W RKO or Warner Bros. classic, starring the likes of Fred and Ginger and Ruby Keeler and directed by Busby Berkeley.
"I'm one of the biggest fans of movie musicals from the 30s and 40s," says two-time Tony and Drama Desk nominee for choreography and the show's director, Randy Skinner. "I've always wanted to give audiences that feeling of being in a movie house, back to that long-ago era when movies became talkies and tap dancing filled the screen."
Skinner, also an avid fan of the color spectaculars from M-G-M starring Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller, and Marge and Gower Champion, has vivid memories of working in regional theater with one of the major players of early classic musicals: the gal who did everything Fred did but backwards and in heels: Ginger Rogers. "She was so generous and shared such marvelous memories of that time. And even when we worked together, she was such a trouper. Amazing, indefatigable."
He says that Dames at Sea "is set musically and hilariously in an era we don't see any more." The musical was originally a short sketch, based loosely on 30s musical films. The character of "Ruby" is definitely suggested by Ruby Keeler's Peggy in 42nd Street. It's no secret that the writers--composer Jim Wise and book writers/lyricists Robin Miller and George Haimsohn—were huge fans of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
Skinner has had a love affair with the material since not only choreographing but also appearing in a production of Dames at Sea while a student at Ohio State University. "For years, I wanted to revisit the material and really give it its due. Anna and Alan Osroff gave me the springboard at their Infinity Theater in Annapolis. It's a Navy town, so it was a great choice. That's where it started three years ago."
"We so enjoyed working with Randy," says Alan. "He's the real deal. It's been a good journey because Randy's a great captain. He knows this material like the back of his hands." Adds Anna, "He's so level-headed and kind, and never loses focus of the material."
Drama Desk nominee John Bolton (A Christmas Story), who has the dual role of a ship's captain and a director attempting to make a comeback and open a show that's about to be thrown into chaos, states, "We're paid to do what we love. I grew up listening to all the original cast albums, and Dames at Sea was one of my favorites. To get to do a show that you love is a dream come true. "It's has a terrific score, being heard for the first time on Broadway. We sort of have bragging rights.
"Randy's pulled out all the stops," he continues. "He's expanded the choreography for the production numbers. When Dames opened Off Broadway in 1969 at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel), the stage was so small that there were little dance breaks."
Original Dames at Sea cast member David Christmas (who portrayed Dick) can do one better: "In the inaugural run at Caffè Cino (on Cornelia Street in the Village), the stage was a nine-foot-by-nine-foot platform adjacent to a large brass espresso machine."
The idea, notes Skinner, was to put 1933 onstage. "When I approached our designers, each was very enthusiastic about working on the show. How fortunate we were able to be assisted by the best."
Onboard are three-time Tony and four-time Drama Desk nominee Anna Louizos, sets; Tony and Drama Desk nominee David C. Woolard (recipient of a Drama Desk Special Award for off-Broadway's The Orphans' Home Cycle), costumes; and nine-time Tony and six-time Drama Desk nominee, lighting designer Ken Billington (with a Tony and DD win for the Chicago revival).
The production has an eight-piece orchestra (the original had two pianos) that sounds like 16. Orchestrations are by 10-time Tony and 13-time Jonathan Tunick (with multiple wins from both). Music directing and creating the dance and vocal arrangements is Rob Berman (veteran Broadway and City Center Encores! music director). Assistant director/choreographer is Emily Morgan. An element that enhances the production numbers are mikes attached to the tap shoes.
"Dames is a bit unusual," Skinner points out. "It has principals doing all the dancing. Musicals have gotten away from that. It was a blessing to cast highly proficient dancers who are a triple threat. They can act, sing, and dance. It's a thrill to watch them light up. They live to dance. They have dancer souls."
According to Bolton, it was an exhaustive, but fun process. "Those Busby Berkeley epics were famous for having hundreds of dancers, but we're only six. But six very happy cast members. And we never have to head to the gym. Ours is onstage. For the run of the show, I can eat whatever I want. We're burning a lot of calories. In rehearsals, to burn the choreography into our muscle memory, Randy had us doing the steps again and again, but we'd also beg, ‘Please, let us do it again.'
"I'm surrounded by pros," he adds. "I'm the old guy (actually, he's only 43), with very little dancer training. However, I got out there and hit the boards with the youngsters." Skinner replies, "The talent of the six cast members made it a joy to go into the rehearsal hall. I can't think of actors better for the roles.”
Mara Davi, a veteran of A Chorus Line and The Drowsy Chaperone, has been tapping away since age three "and later fell in love with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who I desperately wanted to be. I was also in awe of Ann Miller. Eloise Kropp, who later was much inspired by the dizzying dance work of the legendary Eleanor Powell, has been tapping away since age eight. Lesli Margherita, who originated the role of Mrs. Wormwood in Broadway's Matilda, gets to cross the street and let loose "and dance, dance, dance—and play Mona, an over-the-top diva."
Now, the show opens on Broadway where, Skinner concedes, "It's hard raising money, sometimes even when you have a big name attached. I held out for the Helen Hayes. It's intimate, with a deep stage. That's rare enough, but it has great acoustics and there's no bad seat.
"You have to have the right theater," he continues. "Real estate is the biggest part of the puzzle as far as bringing a show to Broadway. Several good shows had a hard time because they were in the wrong theater. We're probably the last commercial show here. It's becoming the new home of Second Stage. We should have more Broadway house the size of the Helen Hayes."
Dames at Sea is the story of a Broadway director and a Broadway diva making their comebacks, but just as the show is about to open wrecking balls attack the theatre. So, where else to go but to sea—thanks to the leading lady having had a liaison with a certain Navy captain.
Sold out on the rolling sea, the leading lady develops mal de mer. So an ab fab tapper who knows the whole show goes out an ingénue and, more than filling the diva's big shoes, becomes a star.
The show gets off to a roaring star with the rousing "Wall Street, "quickly followed by one of the most clever tunes written for the stage: "It's You," in which Ruby and lovelorn sailor Dick (Kropp, Cary Tedder) take audiences down memory lane with rhymes of Jean Harlow/Gretta Garbo, Leslie Howard/Noel Coward, Burt Wheeler/Ruby Keeler, Aimee Semple/Shirley Temple, the Barrymore trio/ Dolores Del Rio. The names may have recognition only with audiences of a certain age. Cast members joked that they went to the internet and SmartPhones to research. It's very rat-a-tat-tat, but if audience members miss any of the names, they can check out the glossary of show business greats on the lobby mural.
This showstopper is followed by "Broadway Baby," a classic "I Want" solo by Tedder. Notice the inventive choreography Skinner visits on the piano.
"This is the most relaxed and fun experience I've had," says Skinner. "All of us have banded together to make Dames at Sea a spectacular and colorful show with charm and heart. A musical fill with nostalgia that's refreshing, reflective, and truthful—one that will be embraced by audiences. I'm happy to say it seems we're succeeding. It's wonderful to have audiences walking up the aisles with a smile on their faces."