- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

As if several feet of snow weren't fluff enough, Olney Theatre has confected some fluff of its own with its sparkly revival of the 1969 musical "Dames at Sea." Known as the show that shot a young Bernadette Peters to fame
(how time passes this spring she will play the geezer Mama Rose in "Gypsy"), "Dames at Sea" is a spoof of all those Busby Berkeley tap-dance extravaganzas of the 1930s, such as "42nd Street."
In it, a young girl named Ruby (Meghan Touey), fresh off the bus from Centerville, Utah, comes to New York and, in the space of 24 hours, gets a part in a Broadway show, falls in love with a song-writing sailor from her hometown named Dick (Sol Baird) and winds up stealing the spotlight from the witchy leading lady, Mona Kent (Deborah Tranelli, delightfully soignee in the Joan Crawford vein, only with an outstanding set of pipes).
Ruby emerges at the end of the day with a swell fella and a stellar career far removed from Centerville's Marigold's Drug Store. She also would have been the toast of Broadway if not for a series of circumstances that moved the show from the Great White Way to the deck of a battleship. Don't ask. Because then you would have to figure out how the producers moved 6 tons of sets and costumes, trained sailors to be chorus boys and rehearsed all new numbers penned by Dick, a combination of Richard Rodgers and Mr. Roberts just hours before curtain time.
It is all pure escapism and gee-willikers optimism, delivered with brisk aplomb by a top-notch cast that includes Broadway veterans Brad Bradley (playing Lucky, a glad-handing fellow sailor) and Mr. Baird, along with local favorite Sherri L. Edelen, whose big voice and moxie have graced many a show, from the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration to musicals at Signature Theatre. Miss Edelen appears to be having the time of her life playing the tailor-made role of Joan, the brassy dance captain who has been around, knows it all and then some, and has perfect timing when it comes to rattling the skeletons in other people's closets.
In order to pull off a show like "Dames at Sea," you need a combination of cheerful high energy and enough of a wink to keep everything from seeming ridiculous.
Director Dallett Norris retains the bright-eyed, hard-edged gloss of musicals from the 1930s but injects just enough knowingness from the cast so the show doesn't dissolve into ingenuous, oversweetened goo. A good example of this is the number "Mister Man of Mine," a tear-jerker torch song that has Mona singing her heart out while a hilarious dumb-show in silhouette goes on behind her.
The songs are cute, stuffed to the scales with double-entendres, but not particularly memorable. What does stick in your mind, however, is how, in 1969, it was still acceptable to make anti-Semitic remarks and whip up a wild production number ("Singapore Sue") that contains more Asian stereotypes than the entire score of "Flower Drum Song."
The tap-dancing is a mixed bag, with the most graceful and dexterous efforts coming from Mr. Baird and Mr. Bradley, who evoke pleasant comparisons to the dancers in Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free." Miss Touey (who brought passion and light to another spoofy musical, "Bat Boy," last fall) is the personification of all things all-American and sweetheart-ish as the sweetly determined Ruby.
Clocking in at just two hours, "Dames at Sea" is the right length because any more pertness could give your dimples a cramp. It is the marshmallow fluff of musicals you enjoy the empty calories and just move on.

***
WHAT: "Dames at Sea"
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, selected Thursday matinees at 2 p.m. Through March 30.
TICKETS: $14 to $35
PHONE: 301/924-3400
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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