Dames at Sea opened in New York in 1968, just after Hair, which proves we always loved our old Hollywood musicals as much as the new rock ones. The Union revival is a welcome reminder of this show’s charm and affectionate, parodistic virtues, though I’ve never thought it was in the 1930s musical spoof class of Sandy Wilson’s Divorce Me, Darling!
And as a send-up of those great Warner Brother musicals starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell – Ruby in Dames (she’s from Utah; “You too?”) goes out on the poop deck and comes back a star, thanks to her love of Dick and his songs – it’s always being trumped by the real thing in our regular revivals of the stage version of 42nd Street.
Still, small-scale camp, fun and wittiness is the whole point, and director Kirk Jameson and choreographer Drew McOnie provide a classic instance in the girls’ legs cycling upside down inside some silk blue waves that then wrap around as sarongs. And there’s Rosemary Ashe storming around as Mona Kent, unleashing her bellowing, dangerous contralto like Ethel Merman with stomach cramps.
Kingsley Hall’s design is clever, too, a curtain of dollar bills implying the sarcastic opposite of the Depression (“Good Times Are Here To Stay,” ha-ha), and the backstage first act and poop deck second neatly contained on a set of tea chests and suitcases.
Dick (fresh-faced newcomer Daniel Bartlett) is fingered as DeSylva, Brown and Henderson rolled into one, a neat joke as the authors, George Haimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise, ran them only moderately close in their one-hit wonder. But the songs are all excellent pastiche of their type, with melodic love duets, operetta-style silliness, gung-ho cheerfulness, a bonkers beguine and a narrative “epic” ballet – “Singapore Sue” – that all honour their inspiration.
Gemma Sutton is a charming Ruby, all furrowed frowns and breaking sunshine, and executing her entrechats in mid-air. Ian Mowat is a hilariously stuffy Captain Courageous, meeting his old lover and nemesis Mona on board; they have to do the show on the ship as the theatre’s been torn down to make way for a roller rink. And Catriana Sandison is eye-catchingly good as the silver-tongued Joan, slender as a stick of celery and gleamingly perfect in button-down shorts and period hairstyle.
The sailors reiterate their claim that there’s nothing like a dame, having haunted Ruby’s dream of seamen and picked up their mops to clear the decks. The show may not have the clinching snap and smartness of the Kim Criswell revival; but that was ages ago, and it’s time to share in the shimmer and the shanties once more as a summer treat.