By Quinn Rigg
The gleam of glitter can be an intoxicating flash of light on a shimmering surface. However, glitter can also be intensely annoying when a cupful is dropped on a carpet or computer keyboard, and the shimmer hangs like an inexorable blight, never to be expunged from where it was spilled.
Theatre at the Center’s dazzling production of Dames at Sea elicits the flashy entrancement of glitter, yet the material itself suggests an unforgiving glitter stain underneath the “shift” key. While choreographically polished, artfully designed and wonderfully performed, Dames at Sea contains aggressively regressive subject matter in a current theatrical climate of innovation and inclusion.
Written in 1968 by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller with music by Jim Wise, Dames at Sea was conceived as a parody to the massive superfluity of Busby Berkeley-style movies of the 1930s. Not designed with substance in mind, the outlandish plot sees Ruby, a young woman from the Midwest, coming to the Great White Way seeking Broadway stardom. Antics ensue, and by the end of the day she’s fallen in love and become the star of a big Broadway show performing on a Navy battleship. A more in-depth synopsis of the campy plot may be found here.
Purposefully shallow and self-referential, the libretto of Dames at Sea is wildly entertaining in concept, yet its more problematic elements make the camp less palatable. One major conflict in the musical arises from antagonist Mona Kent’s disregard for the consent of young Dick, which in turn leads Ruby to believe her sweetheart is unfaithful. To this, young Dick concludes, “Ruby it’s not like that. You can’t say no to Mona Kent.” Particularly at a time of rising visibility regarding stars abusing their status to take advantage of others, this plot point has aged terribly. Much of the libretto’s rhetoric objectifies women and their right to agency and success: the entirety of the titular “Dames at Sea” specifically relegates the value of women to their ability to satiate the physical desires of men. Though done in the name of parody, Haimsohn’s and Miller’s book for Dames at Sea perpetuates toxic ideals of agency and gender, putting the boat on rocky water.
Although the material itself is beleaguered by regressive undertones, the cast and production team shine like fireworks, making the most of the campy musical. Direction and choreography by Linda Fortunato is endearing and refreshingly polished. Fortunato leans into the melodramatic style of satire whole heartedly — commitment is the name of the game, and it is a game this cast wins by a landslide. Small yet scrappy, this six-person cast rivals the talent and power of a 60-person ensemble. Though the cast is meager in number, Fortunato employs the sheer skill and prowess of her performers to the fullest extent, and the stage is filled to bursting with energy. Adept at creating physical harmony, Fortunato is attentively attuned to the energetic pulse of the musical, knowing when to soften choreography to a soothing, languid meander, and when to pull the stops out in an explosion of excitement. Fiery tap choreography delightfully bounces in a tour de force of athleticism for all involved.
Set design from Jessie Howe is detailed and incredibly versatile. A theatre in act one and a battleship in act, two, Howe creates a beautiful backdrop for the ridiculous antics of the play to take place. The multi-tiered set presents ample opportunity for surprising entrances and exits. The outward thrust of the stage combined with the verticality of the set sets up a pleasing three-dimensionality of physical relationships on stage.
Music direction by William Underwood is tightly blended and sure to infect audiences with tapping toes. With only three piece band of Randy Glancy on piano, Nick Anderson on percussion, and himself on another piano, Underwood compensates with enthusiastic playing and nuanced dynamics. Playing in a myriad of styles, the band keeps the pulse going, laying down an unfaltering foundation for voices to ring and feet to let loose. The cast is musically supported in the best of hands—all six of them!
Kelly Felthous is a storm of dancing expertise as young starlet Ruby. Athletic and precise, she commands the stage with grace and refined skill, spinning, tapping, and back-handspringing her way to stardom. The innocent innocuity of the role is juxtaposed greatly by the raw power in Felthous’s feet.
Colette Todd dazzles with flare and passion as morally dubious primadonna Mona Kent. Unflinching in her commitment, Todd revels in the ferocity and self-absorption, filling the stage with her massive presence, as well as her incredible voice. Todd deftly navigates the vocal demands of the show while making it look effortless. Whether operatically wailing to the high heavens, or blending seamlessly with the ensemble, Colette Todd is an expert actor and show-stopping masterpiece.
Sierra Schnack is a firecracker onstage and on her feet as Joan. The fiery drive of the role is well-kept by Schnack’s refreshing intensity. Steadfast and precise as a surgeon, Schnack unshakably nails every step with enthusiastic grace.
Steven Strafford demonstrates a masterclass in character acting as he seamlessly switches between Hennesey and The Captain. Strafford has perfected the art of finding and using the dysfunction of a character in order to pinpoint the truth in the most efficient, yet honest way possible. And to boot, his operatic chops are nothing to scoff at — Strafford is the full package.
Todd Aulwurm is adorable as songwriting sailor Dick, and his resonant baritone is soothingly warm in tone. Aulwurm is aptly supported by his sailing counterpart Lucky, played with riled-up excitability by Sam Shankman. Together the two are the spitting images of “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed;” their eagerness is incredibly.
Bursting with glamorous performance and lavish design, Theatre at the Center does its best with the flawed libretto of Dames at Sea. This production is a beautifully-crafted ship set upon the choppy waters of the source material. Unfortunately, the glam and pizzaz of the production design may not be able to hide the libretto’s faults. This musical is passionately danced and beautifully sung, yet the blast-to-the-past antiquity of the material feels less nostalgic for a bygone “golden age” and more like a dusty skeleton in the attic of the musical theatre canon — one that is no longer congruous with the progress of a socially conscious theatrical community.
Theatre at the Center’s production of “Dames at Sea” runs through June 2 at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN. More information and tickets may be found here.