By Richard Ades
Otterbein is presenting its summer series on the stage of Cowan Hall. That is, both the audience and the actors share the stage, making for an intimate experience.
At first, it seems like an odd setup for Dames at Sea, a takeoff on 1930s movie musicals. You may find yourself wondering why they didn’t use the entire auditorium, as they do with their spring musical productions.
But it turns out the cozy surroundings work just fine for this George Haimsohn/Robin Miller/Jim Wise comedy, which is far more modest in size than the movies it spoofs. Originally opening off-Broadway in 1966, it features only seven major roles—and two of them are played by the same actor.
In Otterbein’s production, Haley Jones stars as Ruby, who’s determined to make her mark on Broadway even though she’s fresh off the bus from Utah. She’s clearly modeled after the kind of talented lass Ruby Keeler played on Depression-era movie screens, and Jones imbues her with the same kind of fresh-faced innocence and spunk. Almost as appealing is Sam Parker’s portrayal of Dick, the sailor who falls in love with Ruby after learning they both hail from the same small town.
The same town? Gee, what are the chances of that? Well, pretty good in this show, which takes none-too-subtle jabs at the amazing coincidences and strokes of luck that propelled Keeler’s heroines to instant fame and romance.
Also playing important roles are Jordan Donica as flop-prone director Hennesey, Erin Ulman as spoiled diva Mona Kent, Courtney Dahl as sarcastic hoofer Joan and Ian Taylor as Joan’s sailor-boyfriend, Lucky. In Act 2, Donica does double duty as the Captain, whose battleship is commandeered by Hennesey and his cast after their theater becomes unavailable.
Supporting roles are played by Anthony Cason, Emily Vanni, Jeff Gise and—upstaging all the rest—Tux. This pooch, who plays Mona’s lapdog, is the biggest, calmest Pomeranian you’ve ever seen.
In a show this campy, it’s a good idea not to camp up the performances, which amounts to overkill. Working under Doreen Dunn’s spirited direction, most of the cast members manage to avoid this most of the time. The biggest exception is Ulman, who makes Mona a caricature of diva-hood.
On the other hand, Ulman sings and tap-dances well, as she proves in the first musical number, Wall Street. Other cast members also get ample opportunities to show off their fine pipes and moves, with strong help from Molly Sullivan’s choreography and Dennis Davenport and Lori Kay Harvey’s keyboard accompaniment. Fittingly, no one gets more opportunities than Jones, who is especially impressive on her two ballads, The Sailor of My Dreams and Raining in My Heart.
Rob Johnson’s scenery is nearly nonexistent in Act 1, set on a largely bare stage, but the Captain’s Navy ship is amusingly depicted in Act 2.
Plot-wise, Dames at Sea is little more than a string of self-consciously absurd developments. Music-wise, it’s marked by tunes that are pleasant but mostly unmemorable. It’s a slight pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.
Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Dames at Sea at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (July 23-26), plus 2 p.m. Friday, in Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.